Thursday, May 6, 2021

Fitness Activity Trackers: Are They Worth the Money?

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Raven Montmorency
Raven Montmorency is a pen name used for a writer based in India. She has been writing with her main focus on Lifestyle and human rights issues around the world.

Ever since Fitbit was introduced in 2009, the popularity of wearable fitness activity trackers has shot up. Look around and you will see a lot of people from many age groups using these sleek devices. Most fitness gadget users love using the devices as well. Ask someone how he or she has benefited from one and chances are you will get an earful! However, some of these fitness devices are not light on the wallet. So are these portable gadgets worth the price tag or not?

Functions of fitness trackers

Before concluding whether you are getting value for the money spent, it is necessary to know what you’re getting when you buy a fitness tracker. Here are some of the most common functions.

Step counting

Nearly every fitness tracker comes equipped with an accelerometer. This is the tool that makes it possible to count how many steps you take.

Other movements

More advanced fitness trackers are also equipped with a barometer and gyroscope. Since the barometer measures atmospheric pressure, it can calculate your altitude in order to tell you how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed. The gyroscope allows the device to tell the difference in whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down.

Vital signs

A heart rate monitor is included in many fitness trackers so you can measure your pulse. Some have sensors that measure your skin temperature and how much you perspire. Combining this data, the device will be able to determine how hard you’ve been working out.

Close up of a fitness tracker showing a woman's heart rate.
A heart rate monitor is included in many fitness trackers so you can measure your pulse. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Dragonimages)

Calorie consumption

Some of these devices can use the heart rate information they collect to estimate the calories burned by the user per day. A few also come with apps you can use to record the calories you consume. Combining this information should be helpful for people trying to lose weight.

Syncing

There are fitness trackers that can sync with smartphones and send data to an app. This makes it easy to track your activity over time and may encourage you to develop healthy habits. There are trackers that can sync with other devices, too, such as heart rate monitors or “smart” bathroom scales.

Alerts

Fitness trackers that are able to work with smartphones can also tell you when you have an incoming call, let you know when you have new e-mails, texts, phone messages, or even social media posts. Some of them will send their own alerts to let you know you haven’t moved in awhile or to praise you for reaching some activity goal.

How useful are they?

Will a fitness tracker actually help you become more fit? This is still an open question. Studies done so far have shown conflicting results.

A study from 2015 published in the American Journal of Public Medicine showed that women who used fitness trackers were able to increase moderate to vigorous physical activity by 38 minutes per week. While this fell far short of the 150 minutes per week they were asked to perform, it was still an improvement over what they had been doing before.

A pink fitness tracker sitting atop a smartphone on a wooden table.
Studies have given conflicting results about the usefulness of fitness trackers. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Fascinadora)

Other studies, however, returned disappointing results. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research did not show any clear proof of fitness trackers making the users more active. Another study from 2016 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that overweight people who used fitness trackers actually ended up losing less weight compared to others who did not use them.

Analyzing the pros and cons

Pros

  • You get insight into how active you are every day as reflected in how many steps you take. It’s also easy to measure your heart rate, at rest or after doing exercises.
  • You can set goals for yourself and try different strategies to reach them. Data from the tracker will let you know whether you are on target or whether you need to try a different approach.
  • You can use the fitness tracker when you exercise so that you can train more effectively, making sure your heart rate is in the ideal zone to get the most out of your workouts.

Cons

  • While trackers are good at measuring steps when walking, they tend to give a lower result when you’re moving fast and a higher result when you’re moving slow, which makes them inaccurate. Likewise, the estimate they give for calories burned can be either high or low. So while they can give you some insight, you can’t rely on them as the only measure of your overall fitness.
A young man in the woods checking his fitness tracker.
A fitness tracker can give you some insight, but you can’t rely on it as the only measure of your overall fitness. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Photosvit)
  • Some people become obsessed with the numbers and rely on the fitness tracker in deciding whether they are healthy or not. They want to “get their steps in” and lose motivation if they’re not wearing the device. Going for a walk becomes something they do to meet a quota instead of something they do because they enjoy it.
  • According to studies, another group of people – about one in three – lose interest and stop wearing a fitness tracker within six months of buying it.
  • If you want a fitness tracker with a lot of features, you can expect it to cost US$150 or more.

Alternatives to fitness trackers

If you decide a fitness tracker is not for you but you still want to monitor your exercise, iPhones now come with a health app that automatically tracks your steps unless you turn it off. There are free apps for Android users that do the same thing, and at least one study found that they are more accurate than the results you’ll get from a fitness tracker.

There are other apps that will help you track how many miles you run or cycle, help you create a weight-lifting routine and track the reps and sets, or keep track of your calories, weight, and workouts, though some of them require you to enter the information yourself.

Fitness tracker, water bottle, ear buds, green apple, running shoes, and resistance band are in the picture with a woman's hand getting ready to fill out a form labeled 'Workout Plan'.
There are other alternatives to a fitness tracker, though some of them require you to enter your information yourself. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Citalliance)

If you just want to know how many steps you take each day, get a pedometer. They are much more accurate than fitness trackers and cost a lot less. You can pair that with a wrist-mounted heart rate monitor and still end up paying less than US$100.

In the end, it’s up to you to decide if buying a fitness tracker is the best way to monitor your health, motivate you to get moving, or push you to train harder. If you think a fitness tracker will spur you on to make positive changes, then go for it!

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