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Do Fitness Trackers Lead to Better Fitness?

Despite the explosion of activity trackers and fitness bands on the market, there is actually little evidence that shows they can improve your health. Although it would be easy to blame the trackers themselves, I think there is more to this issue than simply inaccurate data.

By
Brock Armstrong ,
March 20, 2018
Episode #381

Photo of people wearing fitness trackers

Cool, flashy, and hardcore looking wristbands that promise to measure your heart rate, steps, sleep, calories burned, and even stress levels can be seen on everyone these days. And yet, obesity and cardiovascular disease remain on the rise. How can that be?

Many fitness researchers and coaches believe that there is a disconnect between the wearable "fitness tracker" market and how people are using them (or rather, not using them). In a nutshell, recording all that data doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior changes, which in the end is the real goal.

One perplexing study, among many negative studies, was released in September 2016 called Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss. It showed that people who didn’t use fitness trackers at all actually lost more weight (8 lbs, on average) than their smartwatch wielding friends. Despite this and other damning evidence, years later the fitness tracker industry is even bigger, with more options to choose from, and it shows no signs of slowing down. So, what the heck is going on?

If you can't measure it, you can't improve it

A business guru named Peter Drucker is often quoted as saying: "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." I am sure you have heard that quote somewhere at a conference or read it on an inspirational poster on Pinterest. It is a good quote, and for the most part, I agree with it. Like any good sound bite, it’s catchy, motivational, and seems logical. But also, as with many good sound bites, it is missing the meat of the message.

Surely if Mr. Drucker weren’t aiming for a pithy quote he would have gone on to say something like “but once you measure it, you must put a plan in place to improve it.” And that is where I believe the biggest issue with the fitness tracker craze begins. We have a dizzying array of ways to measure our movement and exercise, in different colors and styles to match our outfits, but most of them provide little to no actual help or advice on ways to use those measurements.

Do Fitness Trackers Help?

The study concluded that adding a wearable fitness device to a basic fitness and nutrition program resulted in less weight loss over two years.

In the study I mentioned earlier, all 471 participants were placed on a low-calorie diet, given a fitness plan to increase their activity, and had group-counseling sessions. After six months of that, the researchers added telephone counseling sessions, text message prompts to get them moving, and some additional study materials.

At that same time, some participants were told to start self-monitoring and self-reporting their diet and physical activity. Other participants (the “enhanced intervention” group) were given a wearable fitness tracker and the device’s accompanying website to monitor their diet and physical activity. So the only difference between the two groups plans was that one group self-reported and the other used a fancy device. Sounds like a no-brainer for the fancy device group to succeed, right?

And yet, the study concluded that adding a wearable fitness device to a slightly basic fitness and nutrition program resulted in less weight loss over two years. And the researchers wrote that “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches.”

This helps explain why in 2017 statistics show that one-third of people stop using fitness trackers within six months of buying them, and about half of all purchasers will eventually abandon their device altogether. It’s clear that they aren’t doing their job. But what exactly is their job?

What Are Fitness Trackers Good For?

As a coach, I rely on my athletes wearing some type of tracker so I can check up and check in on them. For example, if a runner I am coaching does not use a tracker and I tell her to go out and perform 3 x 800-meter repeats in Heart Rate Zone 4, sure, I can trust her to nail the workout and proceed as planned. But if she is wearing a fitness tracker and I can see that her pace dropped significantly since the last time we did a workout of a similar distance in that same Heart Rate Zone, I have some important information to work from. I can then make educated guesses about her recovery state, general health, and fitness level. I can also take some time to delve deeper into her mood, nutrition, or even hydration state. The data is a wonderful stepping off point for me to dive deeper.

We measured it, so we can change it.

A study in Singapore aimed to investigate whether the use of activity trackers, alone or in combination with cash incentives (or charitable donations), lead to increases in physical activity and health improvements. At the beginning of the study, 201 people were given nothing, 203 were given Fitbits to monitor their activity, 199 were allowed to make charitable donations based on their activity levels, and 197 were given actual cash for their improvements.

Unlike the first study, there was no plan in place at all. The incentives were simply tied to weekly steps, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) bouts measured in minutes per week. And the outcome (or success) was measured in steps per week (rewards being given for meeting 70,000 steps per week), and a few health-related outcomes like body weight, blood pressure, and “quality-of-life measures.”

And after 12 months of use, the FitBit was deemed to have not affected overall health or fitness.

Not surprisingly, the cash incentive was the most effective at increasing MVPA minutes per week after 6 months—but that ended quickly as soon as the cash incentive was removed. And after 12 months of use, the FitBit was deemed to have not affected overall health or fitness. That was true even when it was combined with the cash incentive.

Once again, I arrive at the same conclusion that by simply wearing a device, glancing at your steps, heart rate, distance, (wildly inaccurate) calories burned, and whatever info you feel is pertinent to your lifestyle, is simply not helpful. There must be a way to use that data to form a plan of action. You must use that information to inform your fitness plan for the next day, week, and month. You must have the ability, and the desire, to analyze that data and make future decisions around your overall fitness goals, similar to the way I described I do for the athletes I coach.

Do You Need a Coach?

Now sure, this could sound like a big commercial for myself and my fellow coaches (and it could be) but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It is possible for anyone to build a fitness plan and stick to it. And this may come as a surprise to you but it doesn’t have to involve a device at all. Gasp! It is true. We have been an active and fit species for a very long time now. Heck, the ancient Greeks managed to invent the Olympics without a Fitbit strapped to their toga. So how do we do this?

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