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Fitness trackers: the good, the bad and the ugly

A quick search on Amazon.com for “fitness trackers” will give you over 53,000 results. The options are endless, ranging from $15 to $300 dollars. But is it worth the money? Will you become more fit by using a tracker? How can a tracker help you lose weight? There are some benefits to these popular devices; however, there are also some drawbacks to consider before investing in one.

The Good

  • Motivation- there is no doubt wearing a fitness tracker can help push you to move more. Having the data instantaneously populate right on your wrist is helpful, especially if you happen to notice you have been sitting all day and decide to get up and take a walk.
  • Awareness- first time tracker wearers are typically shocked by how little they actually walk on an average day. Using a tracker to be aware of how much you walk at home and at work can help you find ways to increase activity during your more sedentary times.
  • Accountability- using a tracker to challenge friends and coworkers to take more steps is a fun way to get more active. Most trackers come with apps that can connect you to people you know and encourage one another to meet their goals.

The Bad

  • Accuracy- many tracker programs overestimate activity levels and calories burned during activity. If a fitness tracker is linked to nutrition apps such as myfitnesspal, participants actually start earning calories back in their day based on as little as 4,500 steps. These calories are grossly overestimated and following the app estimations can work against you in your weight loss efforts.
  • False Sense of Accomplishment- getting 3,000 or 4,000 steps may feel like a great accomplishment. Unfortunately, these numbers, though they are big numbers, are less than half of what is recommended daily. Sometimes seeing high step numbers gives us the freedom to indulge a little more. Remember, 10,000 steps is the baseline for health with additional planned exercise.
  • Avoiding Other Activities- one of the most effective ways to approach exercise is to mix it up. Your body becomes very efficient at activities if you do them frequently which means you need to keep changing up your exercises to continue to see results. If you only walk and jog to get points on your tracker, you will miss out on the benefits of other exercises, like cycling, resistance exercises, swimming and high intensity intervals.

The Ugly

  • Research shows that people who wear trackers may actually lose less weight compared to those who do not. A large scale study published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) followed over 450 people for 2 years and found that those wearing fitness trackers lost less weight than those recording activity in a journal (both groups were given the same nutrition and activity recommendations). The authors sited an over estimation of calories burned as well as participants simply walking instead of doing higher intensity exercises as potential explanations for the surprising results.

Fitness trackers are a great tool for motivation and accountability. Using one to track your 10,000 steps daily and to remind you to move around more can reduce health risks and may help you lose weight. However, getting a lot of steps on your fitness tracker does not negate the need to get your heart rate up for 30 minutes per day. Participate in activities other than walking, like cycling, swimming, that have great health benefits as well. Exercise can count toward your tracker, but wearing a tracker does not replace exercise.

ABOUT
Erickson RD, ACSM-CPT CErickson@billingsclinic.org

Christina Erickson, RD, ACSM-CPT is a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer with the Billings Clinic Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism Center.

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