The dark side of wearable fitness trackers

*** This blog post evolved out of a conservation I had with some friends in my Facebook community. They have given me permission to share their thoughts below***

Pedometers. Smartwatches. Health monitors. Wearable fitness trackers. They’re all part of the emerging landscape of wearable technology. A landscape which promises to change the way we exercise and communicate with one another about fitness.

wearable fitness trackers

A tracker for every mood…

 

Many will keep track of your daily steps, calories burned and pattern of sleeping. Most can connect with your phone, be it Android or OS. Some can track your heart rate in real time and even provide statistics on elevation gained and distance travelled during exercise.

While I love that more and more people are wearing these devices and becoming increasingly aware of their daily level of physical activity, and that many devices have built in accountability and support communitiesI do think that there’s a dark side to wearable fitness trackers.

I recently participated in a two-week ‘step challenge’ with a dozen other bloggers. Despite my relatively active lifestyle, I finished near the middle of the pack, literally hundreds of thousands of steps behind the winners.

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This experience made me stop and question the general value of wearable fitness trackers.

While I appreciate the potential benefits of tracking one’s daily activity (heck, my favourite way to use mine is as a reminder to get up and move on those days when I’ve been sitting at my computer too long), I also believe there’s the possibility that they may discourage some people from making appropriate fitness choices.

The dark side of wearable fitness trackers
  • Might some people benefit more from them than others? I think wearable fitness trackers are a fantastic accountability tool for those just getting started with fitness (or those who have no idea what their day’s activity looks like). But for those who are already fairly active, the information they provide is unlikely to result in behaviour change. Sure, it’s nice to feel that little vibration when you’ve hit your daily step count and great to see your weekly activity report showing that you’re ‘in the blue’ most days, but are there other ways you can measure your progress that don’t involve counting steps?

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  • Is the emphasis on step count, above all other activity, misleading when it comes to improving health and fitness? Although there are numerous studies linking increased daily step counts with a variety of health improvements (increased weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, decreased blood cholesterol levels, to name a few), the same benefits (and more) can also be achieved by swimming, cycling, yoga and lifting weights. Does encouraging people to achieve 10 000 steps a day (which requires most of us to include at least an hour long walk in our already full days) lead to them prioritizing walking over other activities? Activities whose contributions to health and fitness might be more important to them, depending on age, health and goals.

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  • Is it useful to categorize a person’s activity level by simply the number of steps they take in a day? According to the activity categories of the ’10 000 steps a day’ campaign, many very physically fit people would be categorized as ‘sedentary’ or only ‘moderately active’ only because they choose to spend their daily exercise time doing something other than walking. Take me, for example. After an hour of heavy strength training, I’ll typically have racked up only 1000 or so steps. If I had spent the same 60 minutes walking the treadmill (without building muscle or improving bone density), my count would have been pushing my daily 10 000 steps goal. Given the push to share one’s activity tracker data via social media, there’s the potential for feelings of shame or inadequacy. Or even worse, the feeling like one needs to do more to avoid appearing slothful.

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  • Is there the potential for wearable fitness trackers to trigger the same ‘compulsiveness’ some experience around calorie counting and the bathroom scales? As a scientist, I value data. It allows us to quantify our behaviour and make changes if that behaviour is not leading us towards our goals. Not everyone is capable of such an un-emotional response to numbers. Many people, women in particular, become obsessive about tracking the number of calories they consume and let the number on the bathroom scale dictate their mood for the day (I know, I’ve been there). I believe there’s a real possibility that fitness activity trackers could trigger the same response in some individuals, resulting in a negative effect on physical activity and fitness in general.

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  • Is there a subconscious tendency to consume more calories later in the day because our wearable fitness tracker says we burned ‘x’ number of calories? I believe so, given the ‘how many burpees do I need to do to burn off a Mars bar’ mindset I see so often on social media. Combine this ‘reward’ philosophy with the notoriously inaccurate counts generated by most calorie counters (i.e., they almost always over-estimate how many calories burned and we, as humans, tend to under-estimate how many we consume…) it’s easy to undermine the metabolic benefits of exercise.
  • Are people actually using all the data they’re generating to make changes to their behaviour? While data is great to have, unless you’re actually doing something with it, what’s the point? When scientists design experiments, they collect only the data they need to test their hypothesis (collecting more is expensive and often, it’s impossible to determine outcomes and effects if there are too many variables to include in the analysis). Other than using their pedometers as a reminder to get up and walk around the office, I’ve seen very little evidence that the massive amounts of data being collected are actually changing people’s behaviour around fitness.

I’m curious what a longer term study of the effects of wearable activity trackers on health and obesity will reveal. Given the challenge of working with human subjects (we’re terrible at sticking to plans and have a lot of correlational variables that need to be statistically accounted for), I’m betting we won’t have a clear answer for many years to come…

Do you wear an activity tracker?

Which metrics do you pay attention to and how do they affect your behaviour?

 

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this!
    I also think it can make people a little too obsessive. When I wore a fitness tracker, I became obsessed with the numbers. I would work out far beyond what my body could endure in order to reach a random number of steps that I’d decided I needed each day (10,000 was was say too low, in my mind). When I put away the tracker and started focusing on how I felt, I became healthier. Not only have I lose 35 pounds, I’m calmer, I sleep better, and my priorities are back on track.
    (BTW, a friend of mine says she’s losing sleep because she keeps waking up to check her tracker for sleep quality, lol!)

    • Sleep loss because she’s tracking sleep? Talk about irony! I think that tech is good, to a point. We all need to remember what it’s there for and avoid letting it control us… Congrats on the weight loss!

  2. So far, I have not gotten a wearable fitness tracker. My biggest concern is I am trying to spend more time offline and present. I worry that it is another device for me to stare at, adjust and over mess with versus just enjoying the beautiful day I am walking.

    I also don’t like the idea of tracking calories burned. I agree it can lead to compulsive behavior.

    My strategy for keeping active even though my job is behind a computer? I drink a lot of water. Every time I go to the bathroom, I add something else like squats, sun salutations, etc. After I go to the bathroom of course 🙂
    Stephanie Robbins recently posted…Swell.com and Exo Protein Affiliate Programs Now Managed By Robbins InteractiveMy Profile

    • I hear you. I originally had the Fitbit app downloaded on my phone, but it’s incessant alerts, reminders and friend requests were driving me crazy (not to mention sucking the juice out of my battery…). Love your strategy for getting more movement at your desk. I use the same one, as well as alternating bouts of sitting and standing!

  3. I’ve been wearing a tracker for just over a year now and love it. I know that I’m active every morning during my workout but there are days that the rest of my day is sedentary. Wearing the tracker helps motivate me on those days to get up every hour or so and move!!!
    Kim recently posted…I’ll Love You ForeverMy Profile

  4. I think anything can be over-analyzed. I wear a tracker and at the beginning it really did help me become more aware of my activity and more active. And like anything else, the new wore off. I don’t think there’s any more of a dark side than there is to any other thing. Everything has its pluses and minuses.
    Carol Cassara recently posted…Did you see Downton Abbey season finale?My Profile

    • Absolutely Carol. And as I mentioned in the post, there are people and situations for whom this is a perfectly fine way to monitor behaviour. My goal, as always, is to stimulate people to think about things in a way they might not already be. And in this case, to evaluate whether the tech is likely to help or hinder their fitness goals!

  5. I wear my Fitbit every day. If I forget to put it on first thing in the morning or after a bath, I feel lost. And I can be tired as hell, but if I’m at 9000 steps and it’s the end of the day, I’m running around my bedroom trying to get to 10,000.
    Kelly recently posted…This Week in Beauty, Fitness & Health! February 23-27, 2015My Profile

    • Sounds like it’s working for you Kelly (except the ‘feeling lost’; I’ve seen people feel like their daily movement didn’t matter on days they forgot to wear their tracker. Now that’s just silly!)

  6. I never thought I wanted one… then I was given a FitBit One and have been wearing it every day for a few weeks now. I like it but I don’t let it OWN me. It is just another piece of information in my estimation.

    I think it could be very motivating for people who don’t move much… to get more STEPS and do more than they normally would to get the checks and badges and positive feedback.
    Elle recently posted…Sunny Sunday Run DayMy Profile

  7. I won’t chime in my opinion, one way or another. Just want to say thank you for authoring an intelligent article, as always.

    PS: I guarantee you know my opinion 😉

  8. For me, I don’t like that they prioritize steps over everything else – why should I get no credit for spinning?!?! On the other hand, I do like the reminder to move every so often, and my trackers are making me modify my behavior slightly in that regard, although I have noticed that I am ignoring the reminder more often lately ….

    • Pros and cons, right? And your last comment brings up another issue I’ve been reading about lately; how after about three months, the tech doesn’t work as well for us. We start to ignore it or stop wearing it altogether. So much for long term, sustainable change…

  9. I have a Fitbit One that I’ve been using for about two months now. I don’t use it to track sleep, just my steps. I find that it does motivate me to move a little more when I’m not at work or the gym, even if it’s just marching in place during TV commercials. Still, I did set a goal of hitting 10,000 steps on it 25 days this month. I set that mostly to make sure I’m active most days while still allowing some wiggle room for the “off” ones.
    Tracy recently posted…February Recap and March GoalsMy Profile

  10. Here is what I attached to my share of your post on my FBV page: Me, I always come back to what is right for me vs. others. I am different in terms of my body, goals, activity, age, etc. We all know that comparison if the thief of joy… or happiness with ourselves. Like anything else, pros & cons to these trackers. If it helps you in a positive way – go for it. I have never ever used a tracker personally…. I go by how I feel & what feels right for me.
    Jody – Fit at 57 recently posted…NuNaturals Stevia New Syrups Giveaway!!!!My Profile

    • Of course! And, as always, that is my goal when I set out to write a piece like this. Never to tell people that there’s one approach, only to highlight the pros and cons of different ways of doing things so they can figure out what’s right for them.

  11. I am so glad you shared these conversations with us. It brings up some very interesting points. I agree that while these are great for someone just starting to make some diet and exercise lifestyle changes overall it doesn’t really give a clear picture of physical activity. For me I found it was a reminder which I needed as I try to make lasting life changes, and tracking gave me a more accurate picture of what I was eating and activity levels. I think for those not involved in regular physical activity we tend to under estimate what we eat and over estimate how active we are. The other thing I like about a fitness tracker was it made me push myself to reach the daily steps and to find ways to fit the steps in through out the day.
    I didn’t pay attention to the calories in versus calories burned. Instead I looked at calories in amount and source, and that I hit my daily step goal.
    I also found it frustrating that other activities are not somehow translated into steps so you can get a better overall picture of your physical activity.
    Maybe the next generation trackers will address some of these issues. I do like the idea of the fitbit charge with the heart rate monitor.
    Cathy C recently posted…WHAT 2 WATCH WED #W2WW #34 #DeathComestoPemberley #Series @Netflix_CA #NowOnNetflixCAMy Profile

    • As I didn’t want to write about the Fitbit (or any other brand by name), I didn’t get into the potential benefits of having a heart rate monitor. I agree, that this feature can provide other benefits above and beyond a plain old pedometer. But I’ve also seen clients become so obsessed with what their HR monitor is telling them during a workout, that they interrupt their workout to check on it and press buttons!

      • That is interesting. I can see how that happens. I have had a heart rate monitor for 20 years that plugs into my stairclimber (yes I know but owning a stairclimber I am giving my age away here lol) I found it useful but as I had two toddlers at the time I bought stairclimber I had little time to obsessed about anything. I can see the potential for obsession at my age now though. Now that my kids are teens I have more time. I simply have to look at my tendency to be online 24/7 and constant checking of SM etc to see how it is a slippery slope. Like so many things they can be a tool but not always for everyone.
        One other point: the tech is designed to be cool fashionable and features galore. It is distracting in its design alone. I was fortunate in that my phone is one of the only phones the incoming caller ID does work with. Sometimes less is more. Why would I ever need to know who is calling in the middle of a workout. Maybe they shouldn’t try to be all things to everyone, but rather specific task oriented.
        Once again you have given me much to think about. Once again I am thinking out loud lol.
        Cathy C recently posted…Cost-Benefit Analysis: Attending @BConnectedConfer – An Investment in My Professional Development.My Profile

  12. I was thankful for my Fitbit because it really raised awareness of how little I move during the work day. I used to think that my 30 minute run each day put me well over 10,000 but it in fact doesn’t. This helps me walk to colleagues offices to chat rather than email and take a lap around the office more often. I think for desk jockeys it’s a really good tool to have to monitor our activity during the work day.

  13. All great points. I have never tried a high tech version of an activity tracker. I have used a simple pedometer and have enjoyed counting the steps I take when walking–it is amazing how challenging it is to reach 10,000 steps a day. This could be overwhelming for a beginner. A few years ago I taught a PE class for elementary school students and they LOVED using a pedometer. As long as you don’t spend as much time logging and checking your info as you do actually doing your program (which I see as a drawback) I have heard positive comments from people who like them. That being said, I track my activity by how I feel and it just works for me. If my walk feels good, it doesn’t matter if it is 2000 steps or 10,000 steps. If I begin to feel lazy or not to into my program, I can feel that too. I know it’s time for me to switch it up or energize things by working a bit harder. Tracking the way I feel seems to work for me.
    Meg Root recently posted…Go Red for Women: Do This One Thing to Save Your Life NowMy Profile

    • I’m with you Meg. There are certain people and situations for whom it’s a great tool. I just like people to think about the potential downside of technology before they get too wedded to it…

  14. Your second point is sooook accurate! Walking/running more is great, but bodies also require other exercises like strength training and stretching. An hour of yoga won’t translate to the steps you get after an hour of walking. It’s sad the emphasis is completely displaced. I have too many friends who have fallen into this trap :-/

    • And that’s exactly the place I found myself during the challenge I participated in. Swapping my strength training sessions for an hour on the treadmill. Not too bright, eh?

      • Not exactly :-/ good lesson to learn, though. Such tech CAN be beneficial, but not in all applications. It’s why I like MyFitnessPal – good way to log any exercise!

  15. I own a basis peak and it has encouraged me in several ways. The most significant is probably in helping me to take the plunge and reduce my sedentary time. I’ve seen several documentaries and articles about how sitting for long periods is almost as bad for your health as not exercising (at least metabolically) and there’s a habit on my tracker called “don’t be a sitter “. For the past month I’ve set an hourly alarm to remind me to gwt up and walk around once an hour if I’m at my computer. The habit has really stuck and it helps me mentally refresh too.

    The peak has also encouraged me to walk more but on the negative side I fell into a trap you mentioned. When I was going to cycle somewhere I found myself thinking i need to take more steps and wanted to go for a walk instead. Given that there was limited time, the physiological benefits of cycling must be much higher! Luckily I realised I was becoming a slave to the numbers and I haven’t repeated my mistake.

    I don’t think I’m your typical reader-I’m 28 and male (seems like you specialise in coaching 40+ women), but I’ve been reading articles here for around a week now and there is much more wisdom here than in any of ofe fitness sites I’ve seen aimed at my demographic. I’ve just started a new fitness programme (actually, I should perhaps call it a lifestyle) and this site has helped me keep things in perspective. Thanks very much for the excellent article.

    Ish

    • Ish, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. As with anything, I think that wearable tech has both pros and cons. It will help some and hinder others. My post was meant to be a reminder that we can’t stop thinking and evaluating for ourselves and taking marketing at face value.

      And, no, you aren’t my typical reader, but that’s okay! Fitness and health information is applicable to all ages and genders. Welcome! And I hope you come back.

      • Don’t worry, the site is too good not to come back to regularly : )
        Lots of emphasis on balancing different workouts and making good habits for a healthy lifestyle. Taking a long-term view… as it should be.

  16. no and never will…I do things for fun and to do my best at races. The whole thing is just silly to me-sauntering around your house/kitchen isn’t working out. Walking fast with a purpose is. So all those who “think” they are “working out” really are not.

  17. YES. I wrote about my discovery that my FitBit was triggering disordered eating behaviours and got rid of it. For someone with a history of anxiety/ED, I think activity trackers are a very slippery slope.
    Bri recently posted…Fitness rant: Looking good does not make you an expertMy Profile

  18. Hi Tamara.
    Found link to this article & your site through Ride to Conquer Cancer blog. Good article with some valid points. Just like anything else, a fitness tracker can add value & be a positive or a negative (just look at the internet, LOL).
    When I got my new Samsung S4 in the summer, I discovered my first walking app. Has encouraged me to increase my walking; close to triple what I used to do. Many days I know get 10,000+ steps.
    But my real passion is cycling. Will briefly tell my story:
    In May 2012, my doctor told me to lose weight. Changed my diet, bought a bicycle & started riding. Rode about 1000 km that summer & lost 20 pounds.
    Have now completed the Becel Ride for Heart twice, raising almost $8000.00 for Heart & Stroke Foundation and Ride to Conquer Cancer once, and have lost almost 60 pounds.
    One of my team members, Bill Wall is 87 years old, has completed the 200+ km ride six times and he’s blind! What an inspiration! When I met Bill in August 2013, I asked where do I sign up?
    Thanks for creating your website and helping people to be more fit & healthy!
    Hope its okay for a guy to find some tips & advice on your site. LOL.
    Best regards.

    • You’re so right AJ. Tools are just tools. They aren’t inherently good or bad. It’s how we use them! Sounds like you’ve approached it the right way. Congrats on your success and for inspiring others to be healthier too! (And always happy to hear from readers, male or female 😉 )

  19. Hello Tamara, I totally agree with your thoughts is that “wearable fitness trackers are a fantastic accountability tool for those just getting started with fitness”. Thanks for sharing such wonderful information with us.

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