Do Fitness Trackers Work?

Getting more exercise and getting more out of your exercise are essential for anyone who wants to get fit and stay fit. Setting workout goals and remaining aware of them is part of the exercise prescription, which is why fitness trackers are so hot.

But do they work?

Nobody really knows. According to a story by the Associated Press (AP), evidence that people get healthier if they use a fitness-tracking device, such as Fitbit, is limited. The gadgets are new, and research about their effective is limited and generally has involved on small or specific groups of people.

Another AP story reported that although sales of fitness trackers are robust, sustained interest in their use by the people who purchase them is … questionable.

“One research firm, Endeavour Partners, estimates that about a third of these trackers get abandoned after six months,” according to this report. “A health-care investment fund, Rock Health, says Fitbit’s regulatory filings suggest that only half of Fitbit’s nearly 20 million registered users were still active as of the first quarter of 2015.”

Still, if the novelty of something inspires you to think about your activity level, it might have value. We know a guy who didn’t realize his smartphone was equipped with a step-tracking app until he tapped the heart icon to see what it was, and found he’d taken more than 10,000 steps one day. “Is that good?” he wondered. (Yes, it is; the average U.S. adult takes about 5,900 steps a day.) Because his curiosity was rewarded, because he was gratified about his effort, he kept checking the app for several days in a row, with an eye toward keeping the step count high.

A fellow interviewed by AP had gotten Fitbit as a gift. He said that even though his initial enthusiasm for it has worn off, it does encourage him to walk the dog more often.

Worn on your body or clothing, fitness trackers compile data such as how many steps you take, where you run/walk/skip, how many calories you burned, your heart rate, how much oxygen is in your blood, the quality of your sleep… The programs can be synched with smartphones and other devices, and render a snapshot of your activity. You can see how well you are at setting and reaching your goals.

More than 11 million of the devices were sold in the first quarter of this year, three times as many as a year ago. In 2014, Fitbit doubled sales and tripled revenue.

The wearable technology seems to be especially popular among millennials, because this age group was born and raised in the digital, sharing world.

A study published last month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine is one of few completed clinical trials of fitness trackers. It showed that overweight, middle-aged and older women who used a Fitbit got about an hour of additional exercise a week, although they did not reach the activity goals experts recommend. A group of women who were given pedometers showed no increase in their activity.

The researchers believe that if the women had received more support than simply a piece of technology they might have notched even bigger gains in exercise. But because the studies limitations mean you really can’t draw significant conclusions – the study subjects were all female, and all about 60 years old, white and affluent.

The researchers are planning another study with a different device, Garmin’s Vivofit tracker, which is designed to test the LED-based heartbeat sensors to determine their accuracy. They noted that it’s difficult for science to keep up with the fast pace of innovation and new features to quantify how useful they are.

But even if you can’t prove or measure the trackers’ benefits, many researchers believe they’re still helpful in getting people to change the way they think about their habits. Public health advocates want people to monitor their health, and a lot of people think fitness trackers are cool ways to do it.

Dr. Jason Mendoza is studying teenagers as they use the trackers, and he believes that they’re probably most effective if they’re one element of an overall exercise regimen, combined with other tools such as coaching.

Dr. Daniel Neides of the Cleveland Clinic told AP that a simple Pebble+ fitness tracker helped him get in the best shape of his life. In 2013, the clinic started offering the devices to employees as part of a program to reduce its health costs. Employees who met step-counting or other activity goals could save, according to the story, about $2,000 a year in out-of-pocket health care spending.

At Cleveland Clinic, Neides said medication costs were reduced, as well as emergency room visits, hospitalizations and sick days. He said the clinic had tried a similar program without fitness trackers, but it didn’t work very well.

Some people have legitimate concerns about employer invasion of their privacy if they feel obliged to participate in tracking activities, or share information they consider personal. Industry observers raise the ominous flag that certain providers, such as health insurers, might exert pressure on people to use trackers that report their data to be crunched as part of determining their premium costs.

And one should be aware of such risks in using any digital technology that provides personal information to people who shouldn’t have it or could misuse it, whether it pertains to your health, finances, relationships or anything else you value.

Some people wonder how accurate the data are that trackers provide, especially if they drive medical or financial decisions.

But as Neides noted, when it comes to participating in a behavior you know is good for you, “Human nature indicates that for a lot of us, we just need a gentle nudge in the right direction. I look at it like a report card. I have a goal. I want to get an A. For me, getting an A is hitting 10,000 steps every single day.”

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