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Do fitness trackers really work?

Grace Sweeney

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Checking FitbitBetween  fitness apps and the Fitbits, sometimes we still don’t see the results we want.

According to sociologist Deborah Lupton, there are something like 160,000 tracking apps circulating the various app stores. These apps cover the full spectrum of personal improvement tools. Apps like RunKeeper, Google Fit, and Apple Health promise a “knowledge is power” approach to managing our health stats.

While it seems like this personal quantification stuff is a trend we’ve been witnessing over the past few years, it’s definitely not new. What we were curious about was whether people stuck with their tracking efforts long term.

And if so, does tracking yield any positive results?

We’ve been documenting ourselves since the dawn of time

Personal observations are super old. People have long been documenting their activities from bodily functions and what they ate to efforts at fitness. This 2010 NYT piece looked at a few people who kept detailed accounts of their lives. While some devices were on the scene in 2010, the process was largely analog.

These days, the connection between data and the body is something the masses can tap into. Where we used to only have analog observations to rely on, we now get to play scientist with state-of-the-art tools.

There are always going to be people obsessed with their stats, but it seems unsustainable for most of us to track, optimize, and monitor ourselves.

The Quantified Self — is knowledge driving self-improvement?

People doing situpsThe Quantified Self movement believes that numbers bring a sense of logic to the table. These numbers underscore the emotions tied to our mistakes and other shortcomings. Fitness trackers give us a sense of accomplishment by sheer virtue of putting them on.

The data available so far doesn’t quite present a clear-cut solution as far as whether obsessive tracking pays off long term.

A 2015 study published by the American Journal of Public Medicine gave pedometers to one group of overweight women and fitness trackers to another. The women who used the trackers increased their activity by an average of 38 minutes a week. 

The pedometer group did not increase their fitness levels at all. So, here, we’re looking at two tools that essentially do the same thing. One cheers you on and sends little motivational alerts when you meet a goal, while the other just counts your steps.

Another study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that obese people who wore fitness trackers lost less weight over two years. Those who made an effort to eat healthily and exercise without the technology actually fared better.

One problem is inaccurate reporting. Devices are good at tracking steps, but anything more strenuous than walking is hard to quantify. So, looking into the data you collect yourself could present a warped perception of your overall fitness levels.

The JAMA participants might have looked at an app that told them they burned 800 calories when in reality, that number was closer to 400. These skewed numbers can make you think you need to eat more and consequently gain weight.

What’s the point?

Well, okay. Maybe it’s a dumb question. The promise of tracking our bodies presents a means of gaining control over our mortality, our success, our appearance, and how we feel. Which, of course, sounds great.

But, we wonder, how many people know what to do with their “personal analytics?” If you’re considering a fitness tracker, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions.

  • What do you hope to learn?
  • What motivates you?
  • Do you plan on changing habits?

Admittedly, people are drowning in a data deluge. If you’re tracking sleep patterns, calories, steps, and workouts — what are you measuring, specifically?

Fitbit or not, old habits die hard

Lazy guy lounging

Are people using these new insights to improve in any way, or is it just fun to reap those digital rewards?

That’s hard to answer. Many people adopt these new tools in a sincere effort to change. For example, they might download an app like Sleep Cycle to monitor their habits and develop a routine, but the shine wears off quickly.

A report published by the Associated Press found that fitness tracker owners abandon their devices after a few months of use. They say monotony is the reason for abandoning ship, which makes sense.

Users collect all this data, amassing this big, unwieldy set. It’s like tracking a marketing campaign without first setting any goals.

That’s not to say these tools can’t be helpful. However, like watching fitness videos instead of hitting the gym, you need to commit to the routine for a sustained period in order to see results.

Ultimately, JAMA declared fitness trackers “facilitators, not drivers” of behavior change. People get excited about these tools but rarely do they bridge the gap between knowledge and lasting change.

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