Do You Need an Activity Tracker?

Despite the fact that you can buy an activity tracking device for your toddler or your pet now, there is actually little evidence that shows they can do anything to improve your fitness. And sure, it would be easy to blame the devices themselves, but I think there is more to this issue than simply inaccurate data.

Cool-looking wristbands, rings, foot pods, and even hats that promise to measure your heart rate, steps, sleep, calories burned and even stress levels can be seen on everyone these days. And yet (not to be a bummer) sedentarism, low fitness levels, obesity and cardiovascular disease remain on the rise. What’s going on here?

Well, many sports researchers and coaches (myself included) believe that there is a disconnect between the fitness-wearable market and how people are using them (or perhaps more accurately, not using them). In a nutshell, passively recording all that data doesn’t necessarily lead to any specific behaviour changes – which in the end is the real goal. Or at least it should be, if we want to elicit any sustainable change.

One perplexing study, among many of the negative studies I read when prepping for this episode, was released in September 2016 called Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss. It showed that people who didn’t use fitness trackers at all actually lost more weight (8 lbs, on average) than their smartwatch-wielding friends. And that was back in 2016! So, yeah, despite this and other damning evidence, years later the fitness tracker industry is even bigger, with more options to choose from, and it shows no signs of slowing down. So, again I ask, what the heck is going on?

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it

A business “guru” (for lack of a better word) named Peter Drucker is often quoted as being the one who said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” I am sure you have heard that quote somewhere at a conference or read it on an inspirational poster, or on Pinterest. It is a good quotable quote, and for the most part, I agree with it. Like any good sound bite, it’s catchy, motivational, and seems logical. But also, as with many good sound bites, it is missing the meat of the message.

Surely if Mr. Drucker (or whoever said it first) weren’t aiming for a pithy quote he would have gone on to say something like “but once you measure it, you must put a plan in place to improve it.”

And that, my fitness-minded friends, is where I believe the biggest issue with the activity tracker craze begins. We have a dizzying array of ways to measure our movement and exercise, in different colours and styles to match our outfits, but most of them provide little to no actual help or advice on ways to use or learn from those measurements.

Do Fitness Trackers Help?

Let’s go back to the scientific study that I mentioned earlier. In it, all 471 participants were placed on a low-calorie diet, given a fitness plan to increase their activity, and had group counselling sessions. After six months of that protocol, the researchers added telephone counselling sessions, text message prompts to remind the participants to get moving, and some additional study materials.

At that same time, some participants were told to start self-monitoring and self-reporting their diet and physical activity. Other participants (which were labelled the “enhanced intervention” group) were given a wearable fitness tracker and the device’s accompanying website to monitor their diet and physical activity.

So the only difference between the two groups’ plans was that one group self-reported and the other used a fancy device. Sounds like a no-brainer for the fancy device group to succeed, right? Or at least for them to come out even…

Not so fast! The study concluded that adding a wearable fitness device to their basic fitness and nutrition program resulted in LESS weight loss over two years. And the researchers concluded that “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioural weight loss approaches.” Which seems a little disingenuous. I would conclude that it actually seemed to sabotage the participants since they actually performed worse than the others.

This helps explain why in 2020 statistics show that one-third of people stop using fitness trackers within six months of buying them, and about half of all purchasers will eventually abandon their device altogether. It’s clear that they aren’t doing their job.

But, let me ask you this – what exactly is their job?

What Are Fitness Trackers Good For?

As an endurance coach, I have always relied on my athletes to wear some type of tracker so I can check up and check in on them. For example, if a runner I am coaching does not use a tracker and I tell her to go out and perform 3 x 800-meter repeats in Heart Rate Zone 4, sure, I can trust her to nail the workout and proceed as planned. But if she is wearing a fitness tracker and I can see that her pace dropped significantly since the last time we did a workout of a similar distance in that same Heart Rate Zone. That means I have some important information to work from. I can then make educated guesses about her recovery state, general health, and fitness level. I can also take some time to delve deeper into her mood, nutrition, or even hydration state. The data is a wonderful stepping-off point for me to dive deeper.

All that data is being used for something – not just collected, shared on social media, and then forgotten.

We measured it, so we can change it.

Another fascinating study in Singapore aimed to investigate whether the use of activity trackers, alone or in combination with cash incentives (or charitable donations), lead to increases in physical activity and health improvements. At the beginning of the study, 201 people were given nothing, 203 were given Fitbits to monitor their activity, 199 were allowed to make charitable donations based on their activity levels, and 197 were given actual cold hard cash for their improvements.

Unlike the first study, there was no plan in place at all. The incentives were simply tied to weekly steps, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) bouts were measured in minutes per week. And the outcome (or success) was measured in steps per week (rewards being given for meeting 70,000 steps per week), and a few health-related outcomes like body weight, blood pressure, and “quality-of-life measures.”

Not surprisingly, the cash incentive was the most effective at increasing MVPA minutes per week after 6 months—but that ended quickly and not at all unexpectedly as soon as the cash incentive was removed. *sad trombone* And after 12 months of use, the FitBit was deemed to have not affected overall health or fitness. That was true even when it was combined with the cash incentive.

Once again, I arrive at the same conclusion that simply wearing a device, glancing at your steps, heart rate, distance, (generally wildly inaccurate) calories burned, and whatever info you feel is pertinent to your lifestyle, is simply not helpful. And unless you can find someone to pay you to exercise more, there is nothing sustainable about that model.

So again, I say that there must be a way to use that data to form a plan of action. You must use that information to inform your fitness and movement plan for the next day, week, and month. You must have the ability, and the desire, to analyze that data and make future decisions around your overall fitness goals, similar to the way I described I do for the athletes I coach.

Elephant in the room: Do You Need a Coach?

Now sure, this could sound like a big commercial for myself and my fellow coaches (and it could be) but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It is possible for anyone to build their own movement or exercise plan and make it one that they will stick to. And this may come as a surprise to you but it doesn’t have to involve a device at all. Gasp!

It is true. We have been an active and fit species for a very long time now. Heck, the ancient Greeks managed to invent the Olympic Games without a Fitbit strapped to their toga.

So how do we do this?

How to Use Fitness Trackers Correctly

Well ok, since we have spent the money on them, we may as well use them, right? And by “use them,” I mean to use them correctly.

So here are my tips to use your Fitbit, Garmin, Apple Watch, Polar, Suunto, MisFit, Moov, LG, Huawei, Withings, Samsung, or TomTom to create some real change in your fitness and wellness.

Do some research on the biometric data points you plan to collect.

You’ll be a lot more successful if you educate yourself. Simply knowing your heart rate, hours of sleep, or calorie burn rate isn’t enough, you have to know what those numbers mean and what they indicate. And not just what they mean for mice in a lab or the 20-year-old college males who were studied, find out what do they mean for you! This takes curiosity, self-experimentation and maybe a spreadsheet 🙁

Spend some time finding out what your baseline is.

Before you jump into a training program, find out where you are at right now by simply going about your daily life and tracking it. If you are only walking ~5,500 steps per day now, don’t immediately aim for 10,000. It is important to first know your current fitness level so you can avoid the Too Much, Too Soon trap and end up injured or sick.

Set a specific goal.

Not just “get in shape,” “lose weight,” or “move more.” Get super specific with your fitness goals. Goals like:

  • Be able to cycle to work three times per week,
  • be able to run 10kms in less than 45 minutes,
  • add a serving of vegetables to your lunch and walk for 15 minutes after dinner.

Find a goal that means something to you, and it will be easier to stay on course.

Lay out a plan to reach that goal.

Increasing distance, duration or intensity by 10% per week is a great place to start, but you can also do some research online and reference some other training programs to draw inspiration. Look at where you are and where you want to be and map out a reasonable plan to get there. And be ready and open to changing that timeline – remember, life is not a race.

Monitor your data like a coach.

Use your intuition (and your gut) to interpret the data. If your heart rate is going up, but your pace is going down, it’s probably time for a rest day (or two). If your speed or distance isn’t getting any better, can you pinpoint what is going wrong or try approaching your training from another angle? Having that data means you can experiment on yourself and see the results of those experiments reflected in hard numbers.

Don’t be afraid to readjust your plan based on the data.

You have the data, so use it to inform your plan in real time. If things are going well and you feel great, try accelerating the curve. If you are tired and your numbers are dropping, perhaps you need to sketch out a new plan. I write my plans weekly so I can see the data before I lock in the workouts. This is a perfect way to use those devices for the power of good.

A Coach on Your Wrist?

Things are coming along, but we don’t quite have a coach on our wrist quite yet. I would not advise outsourcing all that I have talked about in this episode to an algorithm.

In the past couple of years a few of the devices have started giving more “advice,” but in my experience, it isn’t quite there yet. I routinely ignore my Garmin’s assertions that I need to take nine hours to recover from a workout that left me exhausted. I can tell when this 51-year-old deserves at least 24 to 48 hours of gentle movement for recovery.

I also find myself talking my runners off a ledge when their device predicts – based on their most recent workouts – that they should be able to run a marathon a full half-hour faster than their last PB (personal best). It’s nice to have a cheerleader in your camp but that is not realistic or helpful.

On the other hand, the 24/7 tracking software in my Garmin Forerunner has been doing a very nice job of ramping up my goal steps per day based on the previous day’s average. It is also good at then dropping that goal back down when I forget to wear the device for a few days in a row (and it presumes that I have been hitting the couch hardcore). So, the algorithms are coming along, but we don’t quite have a coach on our wrists (or in our pockets) just yet.

Until that happens, I implore you, don’t be one of those people who passively hope that by simply wearing yoga pants, buying a peloton bike, and constantly wearing a heart rate strap that you are somehow going to get a six-pack or be on the podium in your age group at the local 10k race. Instead, seize the opportunity at this time when these devices are rampant and use them to educate yourself and unleash the athlete and coach that you know you have hidden inside you.

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