The popularity of wearables and fitness trackers made by companies like Apple, Garmin and Fitbit has resulted in a multi-billion-dollar industry that has boomed over the last several years. But are fitness trackers really helping us get healthier?
As someone who works in the digital health tech world, I often wonder if wearables are really necessary to track and improve health. I’ve owned two different wearables, an apple watch and a fitbit versa — and I got bored of each very quickly. I won’t lie, during the first week of usage I was enamoured by my stats, but after seven days the novelty wore off. Knowing my steps, how many calories I burned and what heart rate zone I was in during the day didn’t do it for me. I do realize there are many people who thrive on competition and optimized health, but as a 35 year old woman who is fairly active, I just saw these devices as a clunky wrist decoration that didn’t provide any additional information about my actions that I didn’t inherently already know. I also thought they looked unnaturally large on my small wrist.
How Fitness Trackers Work
Fitness trackers have a variety of different functions, and some of them work better than others. Here’s a rundown of what fitness bands can do as well as the technology behind them:
- Count Your Steps. Pretty much every fitness tracker contains an accelerometer, a device that measures how fast something is changing its speed or direction. Using this tool, the tracker can count the number of steps you take as well as measure your movements from side to side or up and down.
- Measure Other Movements. Fancier trackers also contain various other sensors to track your movement. For instance, they can use a gyroscope, which can spin in any direction around a fixed axis, to figure out whether you’re sitting, standing, or lying down. A barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure, can calculate your altitude to determine how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed. And a tiny GPS unit can track your location, which is handy for recording your route on a long run or bike ride.
- Check Your Vital Signs. Many fitness trackers contain a heart rate monitor to measure your pulse, both during exercise and while at rest. Some can also detect your skin temperature and level of perspiration. They combine this data with your pulse rate to figure out just how hard you’re working out.
- Keep Track of Calories. Some fitness trackers use your heart rate to estimate how many calories you’ve burned during the day. A few also come with an app that lets you record how many calories you consume. That way, you can track calories consumed against calories burned to help with weight loss.
- Monitor Your Sleep. Many fitness trackers can supposedly track how well you’re sleeping. They detect motion while you’re lying down to figure out when you’re awake, lightly asleep, or in deep sleep. However, this function doesn’t work all that well. The devices often claim that you’ve slept either more or fewer hours than you really did.
- Sync With Other Devices. Fitness trackers often work with a smartphone app. These apps can track your activity and sleep over time to help you form healthy habits. Some trackers can also pair with other devices, such as a “smart” bathroom scale or a heart rate monitor.
- Send You Messages. Another way fitness trackers work with your phone is to alert you when you have new messages. They can notify you about incoming calls, texts, e-mail, and even social media posts. Also, some trackers send you messages of their own. For instance, they can send a “move alert” to let you know when you’ve been sitting still for too long. They can also send you messages of praise when you hit an activity goal. In many cases, you can use your tracker to share reports of your activity with your friends online. This can lead to friendly competition that can motivate you to work harder. A few trackers can even share health info with your doctor. Sharing your progress is a proven way to achieve your goals.