Are Activity Trackers Worth It?

It seems like everyone has an activity tracker these days. The million-dollar question is does wearing an activity tracker make you more fit?

August 7, 2015
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It seems like everyone uses an activity tracker these days. And since everyone seems to want them, everyone is making them. FitBit, Jawbone, Nike, Garmin, Withings, Moov, Apple, and many others are pumping out the newest version of their own activity tracker in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Even Swarovski has a blinged-out tracker called the Swarovski Shine, complete with a variety of interchangeable pieces of jewelry to hide the device in. I just finished wiping the drool off my computer after discovering their amazing collection for the first time myself.

While I’ve only been using activity trackers for the last couple of years, they’ve been around for a long time. The first activity tracker came out way before any of us ever heard of them. Believe it or not, Leonardo da Vinci envisioned the first pedometer for military use. Who knew? In 1780, the pedometer was made a reality by a guy I’ve never heard of (Abraham-Louis Perrelet of Switzerland) and later introduced to the United States by someone I actually have heard of (Thomas Jefferson).

Nearly 200 years later in 1965, a pedometer called Manpo-kei (meaning 10,000 steps meter in Japanese) was manufactured and said to be the world’s first device to measure steps. It took another 20 years of research to prove that 10,000 steps a day was the proper balance of caloric intake and activity to maintain a healthy body. However, it still didn’t really take off until Stanford University researchers shared results from 26 different studies showing pedometer users were more active.

Why the history lesson? Honestly, because the devices we take for granted took hundreds of years to develop–and they’ve continued to evolve over the last eight years or so, going from a cheesy plastic clip-on step counter you get free at health fairs to a pricey (and pretty) wearable wristband. It’s an amazing device, and now we can all have one. Thank you, Leonardo da Vinci!

But does wearing this fancy-shmancy computerized bracelet really improve your fitness?

How It Works

I’ve had the privilege of testing a variety of activity trackers over the last couple of years. While I couldn’t tell you how the actual electronics work, I can explain what it does (or is supposed to do).

The basic idea behind an activity tracker is to make you more aware of your activity (or lack thereof). Most devices monitor basic activity like steps taken, approximate calories burned, and quality of sleep, which then syncs with your smartphone or computer. Some devices allow you to track more information, like caloric intake, heart rate, stairs climbed, and distance traveled. Some models offer features like an alarm clock or an alert when you’ve been too sedentary.

Fit Or Flop?

The million-dollar question is does wearing an activity tracker make you more fit? Well, wearing the bracelet obviously doesn’t magically make you lose body fat or improve your blood pressure, but it does seem to have an interesting effect on the user. What type of effect depends on the person wearing the tracker.

First up is the curious user. This person has bought every fitness device on QVC in hopes of getting fit. They know they need to get healthy, and buying next best thing seems to be a good plan. They may not actually intend to increase their activity, but buying a new gadget like the fitness bracelet always makes them feel healthier (and they may be in for a shock when they see just how inactive they really are).

Next is the competitor. Competitive people treat the bracelet like it’s an opponent, and their whole mission is to beat the bracelet. I guess I would fall into this category: I have been known to bang out 100 jumping jacks bare naked in the bathroom before bed because I hadn’t quite made my daily goal. This person is also devastated when they realize their tracker died in the middle of their five-mile run. Yes, the tracker can be quite addictive to some–including me.

Then there is the gadget fanatic. My dad is this guy. Oh, who am I kidding? This is me too! The gadget fanatic just has to have the latest electronic toy, even if they are not interested in exercising. The great thing about the gadget fanatic is they typically need exercise more than anyone since they are more apt to be glued to a computer most of the day. They also tend to enjoy collecting data, and the data they collect will likely result in a rude awakening when they see just how sedentary they really are.

Let’s not forget about the motivation seeker. This person is dying for motivation and help. So they get an activity tracker, hoping it will give them just the inspiration they need to get off their big fat lazy tail. Since most trackers are linked with a community of users who are able to connect with each other, this makes joining the tracker world even more appealing. Now they have the tracker–and a bunch of people–to hold them accountable. Before they know it, they are seeing how active everyone is. This can lead to a little bit of guilt and shame, which may just motivate them to actually step it up–literally.

Last is the health nut. This person is all about fitness. They want all the information they need to improve their health and be their best. This person probably syncs their activity tracker with their calorie counter and their running app–and any other app that will connect with their cute little fitness bracelet. Unlike the other users, these people are less likely to be surprised with inactivity and will just enjoy the confirmation that they are on the right track.

No matter what personality type drives you to purchase one of these wearables, you can benefit from the information you receive while tracking you activity. This increases overall awareness and acts as a reminder to move more. Whether you are just curious or competitive, the information seems to have a way of getting under your skin so you move a little more than you would if you didn’t wear one.

Do they have their downside? Absolutely. They are not extremely accurate. Calories and steps vary depending on your gait, fitness level, and activity of choice. Some exercises don’t register as accurately as others, but you get a good general idea of what’s going on. Some devices still have glitches, but most companies are very good about replacing malfunctioning products.

So what is my final answer? I’d have to say activity trackers are definitely a Fit. While there are plenty of people out there wearing activity trackers who haven’t lost one pound, the fact that they’ve invested in fitness at all is a good sign and definitely a great step in the right direction.

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