Fitness trackers have been around for a while now and it’s looking likely that they’re not going anywhere any time soon.
These are devices that can measure our step counts, our heart rates and even our routes if they happen to come with built-in GPS. That way, they can not only keep tabs on our activity levels and make sure we’re burning more calories than we’re eating, but they can also help encourage us to stay active and even challenge us to compete with friends.
But the question is, on the whole, are these devices a good thing or a bad thing? What are the dangers of fitness tracking? And do the pros outweigh those cons?
There’s a lot of good that can be said for these devices to start with. Not only are they effective at getting a lot of people to take more steps and generally be more active, but they’re also increasing the dialog about fitness. I know people who have managed to lose significant weight just by burning more calories through walking and it was all thanks to their Fitbits and Jawbones. Likewise, they’re recommended by doctors to improve sleep hygiene and even potentially identify cases of sleep apnoea! For the average Joe, a fitness tracker is a great way to be more conscious of your health choices and thereby to gradually make improvements across the board.
Conversely, if you’re an athlete, then collecting as much data as possible is always a good idea. Runners can use running watches to map their routes and even measure advanced stats like VO2 max. There’s a geeky pleasure to be had from seeing your average pace/best split improve and it’s essential if you’re training for a marathon.
But there’s a bad side to fitness, tracking too. For one, it’s highly addictive and when you build up a lot of great data, it can be heartbreaking when your battery runs out and miss a gym session or a run. It almost reaches the point sometimes where you seem to be training more for the numbers on your fitness tracker and less for the real purpose of just getting fitter. I mean, what’s the point if you’re not going to record it anyway, right?
Then there’s the fact that you can end up relying on a fitness tracker too much – which is a mistake, seeing as they’re not 100% accurate. Most fitness tracking software doesn’t ask for your lean body mass, which means it can’t account for the metabolic activity of muscle. In short, the calorie burn it tells you is a guesstimate at best.
And what happens when the device goes wrong? For weeks I thought I had some kind of health issue as my heart rate was in the hundreds all day, only for me to discover that the device had simply broken.
There are practical concerns too. Something like a Garmin Vivoactive HR is not easy to slip under a shirt sleeve and it can get pretty sweaty when you wear it all day (including in bed and in the shower). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve caught my wife’s hair with it…
So, with all that in mind, just how much of a good thing are fitness trackers?
As usual, the answer is down to you. A fitness tracker is a tool and potentially a highly powerful and useful tool. If you can use that tool responsibly, and avoid becoming too reliant on that data, then it can help you to accelerate your health and fitness goals significantly. But if you haven’t taken your tracker off for the last week, perhaps take a peek underneath to see if you still have skin on your arm.