I’m writing this article in the Portland Airport, after walking with my carry-on luggage to the end of each gate: B, C, D and E (and then back to gate D for a Starbucks Americano) in an effort to walk 10,000 steps on what would have otherwise been a sedentary day of airline travel. So far, I’ve logged 4257 steps on my fitness tracker.
I fought the desire to buy a wearable fitness tracker (the most common is the FitBit, though I went for the Garmin VivoActive) for years; fearful of becoming overly obsessed with tracking more numbers, letting external data influence my exercise decisions, and measuring success by what my watch says.
Like any tool, whether it be the scale, body comp machine, or a kitchen knife, whether its helpful or harmful depends on how you use it, and perhaps who uses it. A knife, for example, can be instrumental in creating an amazing dinner for your family, or it can evoke serious harm.
Understanding the uses and limitations of fitness trackers is key to using it well. I’ll start with its limitations.
Fitness Trackers are poor indicators of intensity.
Two weeks ago a client commented that her strength workouts are not as effective as going for a walk or easy run. Why? Because her FitBit told her so. According to her device, she didn’t burn as many calories.
If you were to bust your butt at boot camp, or lift weights, your tracker won’t count it as steps, or have a clue if you’re lifting 3 pounds or 30. Fitness trackers will not record the benefits of high intensity interval training or strength training, such as the ‘after burn’ or the effect this type of workout has on your overall metabolism. I’ll save dispelling the ‘calories in – calories out’ or the ‘just move more and eat less to lose weight’ myth for another time.
If you ‘converted’ your activity to steps, or used your tracker to measure your activity on a treadmill, elliptical or other cardio machine, you will, at best get a rough estimate.
Some trackers have a built in heart rate monitor. The heart rate monitor will provide a better depiction of intensity. The accuracy of the monitor, however, will depend on the specific brand you purchase.
Distance travelled, and even steps taken, can be inaccurate.
One of the reasons I opted for my Garmin watch was its GPS capability. It’s fun to see how far I go when I’m out for a paddle board, run, or hike. When I don’t have the GPS turned on, the watch tries to estimate distance travelled. And that, of course, is a rough estimate.
Many trackers link to your smart phone- and as long as you have your phone with you, you can get a fairly accurate measure of distance. With that being said, most phones can do that on their own.
Fitness trackers are much better at simply tracking steps taken- though there are a few limitations. Most will not track many steps if the wrist wearing the watch isn’t moving. For example, if you’re pushing a baby stroller, walking on a treadmill desk, or in my case, towing a suitcase, the steps may not be counted. Most often, though, they do a pretty good job tallying up your steps taken.
Are they accurate indicators of quality of sleep?
This, I don’t know; and I’d be sceptical. According to my watch, I get the best quality sleep when it’s sitting on the night table in its charger. Obviously I’m being facetious, and once again I’ll revert back to my initial opinion of fitness trackers: it depends on how you use them. If you have a sleeping disorder, or never feel like you sleep enough, see your doctor. If you’re using the tracker to get your 8 hours of shut-eye, or for a fun tool to see how much you roll around during the night, you’re probably using it within its limitations.
So are fitness trackers worth getting?
While it may seem that I’m focusing on the negatives and inaccuracy of fitness trackers, they have one incredible benefit that outweighs all the possible limitations: they are a great motivator to get moving and become more active.
You don’t need to count your steps to move more, but having an indicator of how much you’ve moved, and to watch the steps tally up over the day, can be incredibly motivating. A step counter can help you decide to walk down the street to get your morning cup of coffee rather than drive. It can add purpose to running upstairs one more time when you forgot your jacket.
We like seeing numbers, especially round numbers. And we like reaching goals. Runners will rarely stop at 9.8KM- they’ll keep running until they reach that 10K mark. Hikers don’t like turning around a few hundred meters before reaching the peak of a mountain. And fitness trackers can encourage you to move because every little bit adds up to reaching your overall goal. Every step counts.
And despite their limitations, for the most part, a day where you clock 20,000 steps is a more active day than a day where you reached 2,000.
If you have a fitness tracker, or are thinking about getting one, use it as a fun tool to encourage you to move a little more. They do not measure your fitness level, health, or level of success. Have fun with them, but don’t get obsessed with the numbers. Don’t choose a run or walk over a good strength session or yoga class just because an electronic device says it’ll count more. And don’t pace up and down your hallway at midnight so you can get as many steps as you did the day before.
Be sensible, have fun, and understand it’s limitations.
Now, I’m going to get up and walk a bit more (pulling my suitcase with my other hand) before it’s time to board my flight.
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Tanja Shaw is a health and fitness coach, Rotarian, passionate entrepreneur, mom, runner, and owner of Ascend Fitness Inc. and host of the Fit & Vibrant You Podcast. Tanja and her team of expert fitness coaches inspire and coach others to become stronger, more confident and energetic versions of themselves. Visit Tanja at www.ascendfitnesscoaching.com and www.tanjashaw.com.