Health – Are fitness trackers worth it?

I have a confession to make: I’m a little bit obsessed with this digital black band that doubles as a watch, sitting around my wrist.

Every day, I synchronise the band to my phone, so I can process all the interesting data it has given me. It also allows me to be nosy about what levels of activity my friends have been up to that day! Welcome to the world of the fitness tracker devotee.

Fitness trackers are commonly worn around the wrist (but are also sometimes built into shoes, with clothing trackers coming soon), designed to monitor movement and physical activity and, in higher end devices, things like heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and sleep quality. Oh, and they also tell the time, alert you to phone calls, text messages, and play music! You can usually link the tracker to your smartphone or computer, which will allow you to store and analyse the information.

There are a number of different brands out there, and varied levels of reliability.

Research to date suggests that these devices generally aren’t as reliable, or as robust, as medical-grade devices. However, they will give you a pretty good approximation – so as long as you don’t try to argue your next ECG result based on your watch measurements, the fact that they are not 100 percent accurate probably doesn’t matter much.

When it comes to helping people with their health and fitness goals, one recent study indicates that about half the fitness tracker users had stopped using the device three months after they bought it, and another found that owning a fitness tracker was only the first, small step towards healthier living, and by itself was hardly useful.

One problem could be the ease of understanding the data. It’s easy to see what your heart rate is or the number of steps you have done – but if you don’t then know what you should be doing instead, in order to make health changes, then what it the point of having that information? And this is where I feel a lot of the current fitness trackers fall down. Overall the rest of the research on these devices indicates that there probably is a small increase in physical activity from people that use them, and evidence of weight loss – but if they are going in the drawer within three months, that’s not overly helpful long term. Any potential benefit is about making lifestyle changes that are easy to stick to long term, not just changes that are going to help us beat our mates in a week-long stepping contest.

The medical fraternity has mixed views on these devices. While anything that can potentially help us with monitoring physical activity levels and losing weight could be of benefit, there is a worry that the devices contribute to over-measuring and over-analysing our health. This, is turn, could lead to an increase in stress levels if something you are measuring seems to be taking a turn for the worse.

The other concern from medical professionals is that while there is a lot of data given out by these trackers, they can’t record everything else that is going on in someone’s life at that time. There are so many variables, for example, in determining what your heart rate may be at any given time, that bringing your iPad to the doctor and showing them the last 30 days of your daily heart beat rhythms, in most cases probably isn’t going to be of any benefit with a diagnosis.

Having said all that, health professionals aren’t discounting the ability of these trackers to get people moving and making them more aware of important health measures – simply showing people how inactive they are can be motivating. It would be a mistake to dismiss their potential to give us information in the future that aids health professionals in providing treatment and advice. But there is work to be done before these little devices are all they are cracked up to be.

Meanwhile – I’ll be obsessively checking my step count, for the time being.