My Fitness Pal, Map My Walk, Runkeeper, My Plate, Live Strong, do any of these sound familiar? Look at your wrist. Are you wearing a FitBit, an Apple Watch, a Mi Band, or a Jawbone Up? If you have ever downloaded a fitness tracking app on your smartphone or purchased a wearable fitness device, you’re not alone.
According to Statista Consumer Surveys, “30% of U.S. consumers own a fitness band, and 44% of U.S. consumers use their sport and fitness gadgets daily.” Of all the digitized parts of our lives, it seems exercise would be one of the few parts outside the influence of technology. Exercise being, of course, a great way to “get outside” and “get away from all the distractions.” However, this is not so.
Before I can help you choose the right fitness tracker for your lifestyle, I need to arm you with some facts about fitness tracking you may not have known, and these will help you to make an educated choice. The world of wearable technology is vast, and you need to be able to see past unfed marketing claims and shopper scams in order to find out what is really going to be best for you, and your body.
A Brief Introduction to Fitness Trackers
The Fitbit debuted in 2008 as one of the first mainstream clip-on fitness tracking devices. Before, you may have recalled using some form of a pedometer as a step counter, but fitness and activity trackers are so much more. Last year alone, it is estimated that consumer purchase of activity tracking devices garnered almost 1.5 billion dollars in revenue. Even more astonishing is the fact that the gross value of the industry itself is expected to increase to 5 billion dollars by 2019 (this year).
Fitness trackers are different from, say, a step counter. Aside from steps, fitness trackers keep track of your heart rate, walking, running, and cycling distance, sleep, caloric activity, and more. Fitness trackers use something called an accelerometer to track physical activity. An accelerometer is basically an electromechanical device that measures forces of movement around it. In the case of fitness trackers, the accelerometer is triggered by movement or vibration, which is how the devices are able to accurately measure heart rate, steps, and the like.
Accuracy, though, is interesting. Because when we purchase a fitness tracker or download a fitness application we assume it’s relaying accurate information to us, but is that really the truth? Science may suggest otherwise.
How accurate are your wearables?
In a study from 2018, steps were taken to evaluate the validity of “current mainstream wearable devices in fitness tracking under various physical activities.” Something called “respective mean absolute percentage error” (MAPE’s) was used to calculate the accuracy of the devices used in the study. To give you a good idea of the variance in the study, I’m going to present a few of the findings on how well the devices performed at calculating heart rate, steps, distance, calories, and sleep.
The Samsung Gear S3 performed the best for heart rate tracking, with the smallest MAPE of .04%. For steps, the Dongdong tracked them best, with an error margin of only .01%. The Apple Watch performed the worst for steps, with an error margin of 0.42%! That’s an astonishing difference of nearly 0.41% between the two. For distance, the Fitbit Surge had the lowest MAPE of .08%, and the Apple Watch again had the highest MAPE, at .20%. The Jawbone Up3 calculated calorie burning levels with the lowest error margin of .28%, accompanied by the Fitbit Surge’s sky-high .67% MAPE. Again for sleep, the Samsung Gear S3 came in with the lowest margin for error at a MAPE of .06%.
This might seem like just a bunch of numbers and confusing acronyms to you, but I want you to look beyond that and see what this information is saying. There is no one fitness device that was able to definitively perform the best in all of the appointed areas. There was only a single device that could perform at the top of more than one category. If one device was at the top for the distance tracking category, they were at the very bottom for the calorie tracking category (the Fitbit Surge). These activity trackers are all over the place. We let these little devices have so much access to our bodies, health, and wellbeing, and seemingly, the information they’re relaying isn’t all that accurate. So can we trust them? Should we do away with them altogether?
The Truth About Your Tracker
The simple answer to that is: yes. Assumingly, that’s not the answer you’re here for. So, that’s not the answer I’m going to give you. While the simple answer is yes, there is a more complicated answer of: No, do not give up on your fitness tracker just yet. And here’s why.
Though it may appear that from the above information, your fitness tracker is not working, there is a way to make your fitness tracker work for you. You’ll do this by using something called cognitive behavioral therapy. The aim of fitness technology is to change your exercise behavior. The assumption is: “If you don’t exercise, buying ‘this product’ will make you exercise more than you currently do.” Right? However, fitness technology does not focus on changing your beliefs about exercise behavior.
To explain: If you walked out today after work and purchased some type of wearable fitness tracker, what changed? Besides the fact that you now have a brand new piece of wearable technology on your wrist. The fitness tracker did not alter your brain in any way, and aside from the initial desire you may have had to exercise (which pushed you to purchase it), it will not affect your motivation to exercise any more than the chocolate cakes being baked in dessert shops everywhere are motivating you to exercise.
Exercise Behavior, NOT Exercise
So, if you want your fitness tracker to really work for you, you’ll want to shift your focus to finding out, adding, or changing what’s motivating your exercise behaviors in the first place. Then, once those behaviors are in place, you can add a fitness tracker into the mix. “To encourage long-term changes in physical activity, the strategies incorporated into technology should include evidence-based techniques derived from behavior change theories.” What are these so-called behavior change techniques? And how can you incorporate them into your life?
Fortunately, behavior change techniques are a lot simpler to implement than their title suggests. For example, one of the most common and successful of these techniques is goal setting. Here is an excerpt from the 2016 study detailing the effectiveness of these behavior techniques in changing exercise patterns.
“A recent randomized controlled trial used self-monitoring and goal setting to increase steps over 3 months. Half of the participants were asked to use a pedometer to self-monitor their walking, with goals of increasing their steps by 5% weekly. They were given an ultimate goal of reaching a 10,000-step average per day by the end of the program. The other half were provided with educational materials. The first group (the intervention) showed a significant increase in steps at 3 months and significant decreases in BMI, body fat, and waist circumference. Importantly, these results remained significant 3 months after the completion of the intervention.”
The simple act of setting goals can cement in your mind the desire and need for exercise, and you’ll be more motivated to experience that sense of fulfillment upon reaching your goal.
What Else Can I Do?
Additionally, there are behavior therapies that come from a more natural setting, such as the factor of social engagement. “Social factors such as social support or competition have been shown to increase engagement, adherence, and completion in physical activity interventions.” Social factors in increasing exercise can be a myriad of things, like having a friend, coworker, or family member to keep you accountable to your goals every day.
You can combine the two factors and set goals with your friend group or your office to better motivate you to increase exercise. “Those who feel supported by their family and friends are more likely to be active than those who do not. Further, some have found that social support for physical activity is particularly important for those who are not regular exercisers.”
The last method of behavioral therapy I’m going to discuss here is that of feedback and rewards. Your fitness tracker can actually help you, in this category. To quote from the same study,
“Feedback and rewards are other behavior change techniques closely tied to goal setting that can be effective for increasing activity. Feedback can be as basic as providing access to step counts, or more tailored messages designed to motivate activity. Feedback from a fitness tracker or app can be more frequent and personalized than recommendations from a personal trainer or physician. This personalized feedback may be especially effective in encouraging individuals to monitor and change their own behaviors. Tracking one’s own changes in activity levels and exercise behaviors can motivate steady progress toward goals, while increasing self-efficacy.”
As for rewards, if you’ve ever owned a fitness tracker, you probably know what I’m talking about. Upon reaching a goal, your device might vibrate, pop up with an encouraging message, or offer a congratulation. All of these things can be great motivators to continue changing your patterns and behaviors toward exercise.
If you’re considering buying a fitness tracker, go for it! Do your research beforehand to find the one that’s best suited to your needs. Just make sure to remember that you don’t need to buy a fitness tracker that works. You need to purchase a fitness tracker that works for you. Instead of trying to change your exercise behavior, change your beliefs about your exercise behavior.
Here are the TOP 5 THINGS you can do today to change your exercise behavior and get back on track. (Get back on the track?)
- Set Goals. Setting small and reachable goals often will increase the satisfaction you feel upon actually reaching those goals, and that will translate into motivation to continue exercising. Keep track of your goals in a notebook and check in every week.
- Choose 1 thing every month you haven’t done, and then do it. Work up to exercising 4 days out of the week if you only exercise 1 or 2 now. If you’ve never hit 10,000 steps in a day before, do it this month! How about running a mile? Spend the month working up to that goal. Small steps like this will help you see real changes in your fitness ability and your motivation will skyrocket.
- Find an exercise buddy. Social engagement has been proven to increase your motivation to exercise and change your feelings toward exercise. Find someone at your same level and head to the gym! Commit to a plan with each other, and stick to it. You’ll keep each other responsible for the goal.
- Stay accountable for your goals. After you choose a friend to exercise with, keep them in the loop! If they know about the goals you’ve set, they’re less likely to let you skimp and they’ll hold you more accountable for actually reaching them. Have a weekly goal check-in over coffee and a good conversation every week. Not only will it help your health, but you’ll be helping your bond together as well.
- Treat Yourself. If you’re staying on track, hitting your goals, and getting healthy, it’s time to recognize that! The desire to exercise will increase within you, and you’ll feel better as well. For rewards, try a favorite healthy snack, that shirt you’ve been eyeing, or some much-needed self-care time. Spa day anyone?
Fitness trackers can be wonderful tools to help you on your healthy journey, but they can only do so much. A little piece of technology can’t make you healthy, but you can. Stop focusing so much on the latest tech, and start focusing on yourself. If you’re not setting up positive behavior patterns, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Things, like setting goals, making exercise a social activity, and having a feedback or rewards system in place, can make or break your brand new exercise habits. Your behavior patterns play a larger role in your life than any piece of technology ever will. Good luck with your newfound love for exercise, and happy trails!