Pretty much everyone seems to be rocking a fitness tracker these days, from marathon runners and gym rats to power walkers and sports enthusiasts. Heck, I wear two of them. But beyond the hype and trendiness, how effective are fitness trackers when it comes to actually improving our health and fitness? Do they really make you more active and change your life for the better?
Or are they a ploy by the fitness industry to clean out your wallet? Worse, could fitness trackers actually be harmful?
As someone who’s faithfully worn fitness trackers for the past six years now, I thought it was high time to find out the truth. It turns out that trackers do have some great benefits — but they also come with a laundry list of potentially serious drawbacks. Here we’ll take a look at both the advantages and disadvantages of fitness trackers so you can make an informed decision as to if these trendy little devices are right for you.
**Disclosure: This blog post contains affiliate links, which means that if you make a purchase after clicking on one, I may earn a commission. Full disclaimer here**
Improved Motivation and Accountability
Using a fitness tracker can be an incredibly powerful tool for motivation. It allows you to set achievable goals that are personalized to your individual needs and lifestyle, enabling you to monitor progress over time and stay motivated on your journey toward better health.
Features like gamification and leaderboards add an extra fun element that encourages you to continue striving toward your goals while providing real-time feedback. There’s nothing more satisfying than hitting your Fitbit’s step count for the day or closing the red activity ring on your Apple Watch!
Most modern fitness trackers come with personalized advice based on your stats and the activities you enjoy doing most.
Tailored advice that takes into account your individual capabilities and objectives makes it easier for you to create and stick to a workout regimen that suits you.
Trackers are sold in a wide range of price points. If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably have to pass on the Apple Watch — but there are plenty of affordable trackers that do pretty much the same thing. (My favorite budget option is Fitbit.)
This doesn’t have much to do with how fitness tracker helps your health, but I love the fact that many fitness trackers keep you connected on the go. A great example is how I always keep my phone on silent while I’m working, but I never miss any text messages because my Apple Watch will buzz when one comes in. And I can glance down, read it, and even answer it without so much as picking up my phone.
(Of course, not all fitness trackers have this feature — the Oura ring, for example, is just a clunky piece of jewelry without its accompanying app.)
Tends to Overestimate Activity and Calorie Burn
One of the primary disadvantages of fitness trackers is the calorie burn is often really inaccurate. They rely on electronic sensors to measure data such as steps taken and heart rate, which can be affected by external factors such as environmental conditions or even clothing worn while exercising.
For example, some users have reported inaccurate results when using a tracker while running on a treadmill as opposed to running outdoors. A study conducted in 2018 found that wearable devices have a high margin of error for calculating energy expenditure (aka calorie burn.) Other sources found that — depending on the brand of the tracker — they can be anywhere from 27–93% off the mark!
I have found this to be true myself, with my Apple Watch tending to slightly overreport calorie burn during exercise.
Even talking animatedly with your hands at a party can make the tracker think you are going for a brisk walk when really you’re just recounting the time you had to catch and bathe your cat after they tracked their crap all through your house. (True story.)
However, this doesn’t mean that calorie burn numbers provided by your watch are completely useless — they can still be helpful for comparison purposes. For example, if my watch tells me I burned 50 calories one day and 600 the next, I can still safely assume that my workout was more effective on the day I burnt 600 calories.
Where you might run into trouble is if you are counting calories for weight loss, so be sure to weigh yourself regularly, take measurements every week, and pay close attention to your reported calorie deficits. If the scale is not moving the in the right direction, that’s a sign that your calorie burn (or calorie intake) is not being calculated properly.
Is Not to Be Relied on for Medical Diagnosis
Some of the newer trackers monitor heart rate variability, oxygen levels, and body temperature and can help signal to you if something is wrong — but they are not official medical devices and are not to be relied on to provide accurate clinical diagnoses.
It may lead to a false sense that all is well if you don’t get any warning signs from your tracker. However, you should always go to a doctor if you suspect something is amiss with your health.
Risk of Analysis Paralysis
Another potential problem with fitness trackers is the risk of “analysis paralysis.”
While tracking fitness and health data from your device can provide valuable insights into how your body is responding to different activities or diet changes, it can quickly become overwhelming.
It’s important to remember that it’s more important to take action than obsess over tiny details; if you feel like taking a nap every time you load up your tracker’s app, it may be best to take a break from it.
It’s true that wearable fitness trackers emit a small amount of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation, which… isn’t great. But there still isn’t a lot of research about its effects on health. Some tracker-wearers have reported getting rashes and heart palpitations from their trackers. Fortunately, you can reduce exposure by disabling Bluetooth and wifi on your trackers. We probably have more to worry about with our cellphones and Smart TVs.
Fitness trackers that link to laptops and smartphones may make you susceptible to hackers if you’re not vigilant in protecting your information. Trackers that connect to your Smartphone via Bluetooth can possibly be intercepted by hackers, who can then detect the motion of your hand as you type in your phone’s pin.
Other potential problems include sensitive personal data being shared or sold without consent and data breaches.
I’m not going to lie, this is some pretty scary stuff.
May Cause You to Over-Focus on Numbers
It’s easy for someone wearing a fitness tracker to develop a negative obsession with numbers- particularly how many calories were burned or how many steps were taken.
But obsessing over these numbers can be counterintuitive to the overall goal of improving health and well-being.
For example, pushing yourself to walk 20,000 daily steps is meaningless if you don’t make sure to eat healthily and get enough rest as well. So rather than letting the numbers control you, pay attention to how changes in activity and diet lead to tangible results in your physical and mental well-being.
May Dampen Motivation Instead of Boost It
In the pros section, I talked about how trackers can be a powerful tool for providing motivation and encouragement. However, they can also have the opposite effect and torpedo your motivation instead.
For instance, if you do not reach the fitness goals your tracker sets out for you, it might lead to feelings of discouragement, frustration, and low self-worth that result in giving up altogether on your fitness goals.
It can create an unhealthy mindset where every negative piece of data becomes a reason for criticism or defeat rather than serving as useful insight.
My best recommendation to avoid this is to embrace a growth mindset when interacting with fitness-tracking technology and remember that your health is more than a number on an app (or a bathroom scale.)
What Are the Best Fitness Trackers?
Now that you know the pros and cons of fitness trackers, it’s important to know that they aren’t all created equally! There are dozens of brands of fitness trackers, but these are my top three recommendations:
If you’re looking for an all-in-one device that looks as good as it functions and can sync with all your other Apple products, then the Apple Watch is an excellent choice. The latest model – Series 8 – has cutting-edge features, including blood oxygen monitoring and ECG.
I’ve been wearing a series three since 2018 and have been obsessed ever since. I also got my spouse this latest one for his birthday a couple of months ago; he loves it!
For those who want a more affordable option without sacrificing features and accuracy, Fitbit is probably your best choice. One of their newest models is the Charge 5, which has most of the same features as the Apple Watch.
If you prefer wearable technology that’s low-key with long battery life, then Oura Ring could be a great choice for you. This sleek ring houses sophisticated sensors which track data like sleep quality as well as daily activity (including steps taken and calories burned).
I just got an Oura ring for Christmas for the heat sensor to easily track my body temperature and sleep patterns (I find the watches uncomfortable for sleeping), and I’ve loved it!
My takeaway from this is that fitness trackers may not be for everyone. They can be an incredibly helpful tool if you find data-tracking motivating, but there are some real concerns to consider before you strap one on.
As for me, I have since made a few changes to the way I use my fitness trackers since writing this article. But I still believe the benefits outweigh the cons, and I will continue to wear my trackers to help me make more informed decisions about my health and lifestyle.
How do fitness trackers work?
Fitness trackers use sensors such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers to measure movement. These sensors detect acceleration in three-dimensional space along different axes, allowing them to accurately measure body movement.
What benefits do fitness trackers offer?
Fitness trackers provide users with valuable insight into their activity levels which can help motivate them to reach their health goals. By having access to real-time tracking data, users can identify areas for improvement in their exercise routines and make tailored adjustments for better results.
Who should consider using a fitness tracker?
Anyone who wants to monitor their physical activity levels could benefit from using a fitness tracker, including athletes who want to maximize their performance or people who just want to get healthier and lead an active lifestyle.
Who shouldn’t use one?
Anyone with a medical condition should talk to their doctor before using a fitness tracker.
Do fitness trackers really improve health?
Yes, fitness trackers can be helpful in improving health. Research suggests that tracking physical activity levels and goals can increase motivation and overall success in reaching those goals. What’s more, with access to up-to-the-minute data, users can make rational decisions about their lifestyle choices and gain a deeper understanding of how those habits are impacting their bodies.