Fitness trackers have come a very long way in a very short amount of time.
From a simple pedometer to gadgets that indicate sleep quality, heart rate, GPS location, even how much pressure you’re putting on your foot during a run, or the efficiency of your strokes in a pool.
While it might be delicious to have that much data, does a fitness tracker actually help improve your fitness in any way?
And can fitness trackers help you lose weight?
The answer is: That depends on how you use them.
Fitness trackers definitely have their benefits, but there are a few drawbacks as well. Let’s take a look at each.
What Can a Fitness Tracker Do?
The fitness tracker market is packed with numerous options — from fitness tracker watches to fitness tracker rings — that can give you a real-time look at your fitness progress.
The most common types of fitness tracker data are:
- Steps per day
- Resting heart rate
- Sleep duration and quality
- Heart rate variability
- Calorie burn
You can also find trackers that might be specific to your chosen activity.
For example, if you love to swim, there are waterproof options — even one in the form of swim goggles — that track laps and speed.
Runners have a wealth of choices that can determine routes, provide heart rate, and evaluate pace and form.
Into weight training?
Yep, you have options too, with trackers that can automatically record all your reps and sets and put them into an online fitness journal.
Does a Fitness Tracker Actually Help?
They work better when you make it a “game.”
When it comes to effectiveness, fitness trackers can be a mixed bag, depending on how people perceive them and their results, says Mitesh S. Patel, M.D., M.B.A., director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit, the world’s first behavioral design team embedded within a health system.
For instance, his lab conducted a study on workplace fitness device usage.
They found that people who used them in a competitive way were much more likely to increase their daily step count because they saw it as a friendly game, says Dr. Patel.
But those who only looked at the data and didn’t share it were the most likely to abandon using them once the research period ended.
Their effectiveness depends on the person.
Another study, which tracked step count, sleep, and heart rate data for heart patients over a period of three to 12 months, found each participant’s reactions varied widely.
Some appreciated having more awareness about themselves. Others felt nagged, especially when the trackers issued “reminders” about getting more active.
A few of the participants expressed doubts about the accuracy of the data, and two actually stopped wearing them after only a few days.
“Much like smartphones, it’s not the tech itself that’s in question, it’s how you use it,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction.
“When you’re looking at this data, do you feel anxious or negative, or do you feel motivated and supported? It’s important to think about not only what the tech is providing, but about how it’s making you react.”
And, when used as part of a weight-loss plan, fitness trackers don’t really offer any advantages.
Do You Need a Fitness Tracker?
Bottom line: Do you need a fitness tracker if you don’t have one?
If you’re able to stay motivated and understand your rate of progress without one, a tracker may be an intriguing toy that ends up in the drawer within a couple months.
That’s the case for up to 30% of users, one study found.
But if you find that having more information helps take your fitness to the next level, it’s worth considering a tracker that has the data you’d find most helpful.
The key, says Dr. Patel, is whether it’s a tool that’s driving good fitness habits for you.
“Efforts to increase physical activity are more likely to succeed if they combine the use of a wearable with an effective behavior change strategy,” he suggests. “Simply having the wearable isn’t enough, you have to change your behavior in a way that maximizes success.”
For that, Dr. Patel adds, the tracker should be just one part of your larger health strategy — and using it should feel fun, not like one more chore for your day.