These days it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have some type of wearable fitness tracker. You probably have one yourself. I have one – it’s on the floor between my bed and nightstand where it’s been gathering dust for months. Oops. From the Apple Watch to the Fitbit, these things are everywhere, but are these fitness trackers as beneficial as they seem?
Accuracy and Arbitrariness
The first issue with these trackers is that many of the goals they set for you are completely arbitrary. The goal of 10,000 steps, for example, is not some magic number that was arrived at after decades of scientific studies. It actually came from an ad campaign for a Japanese pedometer in the 1960s. And, while there are some studies that show it is beneficial to walk 10,000 steps a day, those studies also show that ANY amount of exercise is beneficial. So you need not beat yourself up if you come up short of your 10,000 step goal. Also, because any exercise is beneficial, you don’t need to worry about 10,000 steps PLUS your fitness class. You can do one or the other and still reap benefits.
Looking at the other possible goals a fitness tracker may set for you, keep in mind that these are not tailored to you, even if you enter your biometrics into their app. These are numbers based on general populations data. So those goals may not be right for you specifically.
When it comes to tracking those arbitrary goals, these devices vary widely in how accurate they are. For those of us who have a tendency towards obsessiveness or perfectionism, this could lead us to push ourselves too much for the sake of reaching that goal. Then there is the feeling of disappointment or defeat if you fail to reach your tracker goal as well. So it’s very important not to place too much stock in those numbers.
Tracking of Other Metrics
The newest fitness trackers can also track metrics like sleep and blood pressure, which may be very appealing to those who struggle in those areas. However, some evidence shows that these trackers could actually create or exacerbate issues in those areas just by tracking them because the tracking creates an anxiety there. Think about it, it’s hard to sleep if you’re worrying about getting enough sleep. Likewise, stressing about your blood pressure could impact your blood pressure.
The Slippery Slope
My major concern with wearables is how easy it can be for an otherwise healthy habit to turn into something destructive. Just as dieting can turn into eating disorders, fitness tracking can become disordered as well, leading to injury and health issues. We live in a culture where how little you ate, how much you exercised, and how much weight you lost are worn as badges of honor without regard to the toxic impacts that paradigm can have.
Fitness trackers can be a good source of motivation and can help show you (some of) the progress you’ve made. But they have significant limitations and drawbacks. If you’re wondering if fitness trackers are beneficial, make sure you consider these points.
Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a medical doctor and that none of the above information is to be construed as medical advice.
3 thoughts on “The Trouble with Fitness Trackers”
I write down the date, time, ambient temperature, and elapsed time of my daily run. (Always the same route, so that’s standardized.) I do it because I hate exercise. Keeping track is the way I force myself to, uh, stay on the wagon. (I don’t own a fitness tracker and don’t want one.)
To describe my data-recording habit we could use various words, each with a different shade of meaning, e.g.: obsession, compulsion, addiction. Whatever: you make a good point about the addictive nature of fitness tracking. As with opiates, people have different levels of vulnerability to a given addiction. Many folks won’t get addicted, but some will, and that’s not good.
One possible answer: “integrated prevention.” Give folks fitness trackers, but in most cases they themselves don’t directly access the data. It all gets transmitted automatically to their primary care physician’s office and collected there. Setpoints and anomalies help red-flag low health levels and/or emerging conditions warranting medical intervention or at least a closer look by a professional.
Imagine improving the overall health outcomes of, say, a hundred million people this way. The program — it could be federally financed — would more than pay for itself in (a) avoided ER visits, hospitalizations and medical procedures, (b) avoided sick days, and (c) massive health data for scientific research and public policy guidance.
Such an “integrated prevention” initiative could be offered — strictly as a personal option — within universal healthcare legislation now before Congress.
Very interesting point about the “integrated prevention”! I could see some people being concerned about privacy, but that could be a very effective option for clients to work with their provider on, particularly if they have a trusting relationship with that provider.