With A World Of Data At Our Fingertips Health Analysis Is Easier Than Ever – But Is It Encouraging Unhealthy Behaviour?

A decade ago fitness trackers were the reserve of sport scientists and analysts; now they are as much fashion statements as training aids 54 million devices are forecasted to be sold by 2021, and seemingly no wrist is left untouched by tech. The stats now instantly available to individuals – on everything from sleep monitoring to VO2 Max – allow for personal analysis and, when used correctly, fitness progression like never before. But is all this data always a good thing? And how are regular Joes – without science degrees or tech backgrounds – expected to know how to use it? RSNG weighs up the pros and cons to give you the answers.

PROS

Fitness Trackers Make You Accountable
A man is only as good as his word, and sometimes that word – in a fitness sense – doesn’t carry quite enough impact. You may have vowed to be more active, but if you don’t have proof of doing so it can be difficult to keep it up, which is where fitness trackers come in.

‘Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is a very popular way of increasing your daily movement (steps),’ says MyProtein Personal Trainer Tom Pitfield. ‘A lot of people do an hour in the gym but can be guilty of sitting at a desk or a sofa for the other 23 hours in a day,’ he continues. ‘Being conscious of your movement helps burn more calories and will increase the likelihood of reaching your final target.’

Equally, if you have PT or a doctor to report back to regularly, fitness trackers provide clear proof of whether you’ve been following the prescribed exercise. That accountability increases the likelihood of sticking to an active routine.

They Have The Power To Motivate
In a similar vein, fitness trackers can motivate us to do more – not just because we might feel guilty if we don’t, but because progression is logged and rewarded. The speed or distance you run one day, for example, is instantly available to you the next time you lace up your trainers. And for most, that data acts as an irresistible target – encouraging continual improvement.

With many fitness trackers syncable to social media – as well as fitness apps like Strava and MapMyRun – exercise also becomes a source of friendly competition. While you might not be motivated by personal progression alone, the lure of bettering someone else’s time is a powerful motivator for many.

Fitness Trackers Encourage You To Try New Things
In 2018, fitness tracking is the baseline technology of these gadgets, with many of the most advanced offering everything from breathing advice, to stress tracking and wireless payment capabilities. Some even utilise GPS to display on-screen maps, which create new possibilities for outdoor sports, as Andy Lane, Professor of Sport Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton, explains:

‘When you go on holiday, you can go for a run with your watch on and a map opens up of everyone else’s run in that area. Ten years ago you would have to get the map out and figure out where to go; now you can just look at all the Strava routes. In that sense, fitness trackers open up a whole new world you wouldn’t have previously known about.’

They Can Aid With Effective Recovery
Aside from their obvious stated aim of encouraging people to get more active, fitness trackers can also be used for quite the opposite purpose of promoting greater recovery time. Lane gives the example of marathon runners who, in the days leading up to a race like the London Marathon, may burn more shoe leather – at the event expo and to/ from various locations in the city – far more than they normally would. All that movement generates accumulated fatigue, and a fitness tracker can tell you when it’s time to take a break.

‘If you work in a warehouse or outdoors, you’ll hit 20,000 steps a day easily,’ says Labe, ‘but for athletes whose lives revolve around sitting and running, 20,000 steps is going to wear them out. Fitness trackers can be used, in this sense, to ensure elite athletes get enough rest.’

But it’s not only elites who can benefit from more recovery time; if you exercise regularly, on top of an active nine-to-five, your tracker can give an indication of just how much you’re on the move – and hint at when it might be time to have day off.

CONS

Fitness Trackers Encourage Obsessive Behaviour
The main criticism levelled at fitness wearables – and the increased digitisation of fitness in general – is that it encourages obsessive behaviour and, at the extreme end of the scale, exercise addiction. Stats can motivate, but they can also constrain. If every run, ride or gym session is dominated by data, then there’s a good chance you won’t take your foot off the gas as much as you should – you also run the risk of missing out on the one aspect that guarantees consistency: fun.

Lane, however, believes responsibility lies at the hands (or wrists) of the individual, rather than the tech they wear. ‘Fitness trackers can encourage obsessive, addictive behaviour, but only if you have an obsessive personality,’ he says. ‘To say they’re to blame for exercise addiction is to present the user as a passive being who can be controlled.’

They Don’t Actually Make Us Any Fitter
For all their popularity, there’s little evidence that fitness trackers have a marked effect on our fitness. One study30284-4/fulltext), published in The Lancet, followed 800 participants over a 12-month period. Their fitness was logged throughout the year, with one group given a Fitbit to motivate/ incentivise, one the promise of a cash reward at the end of the study, and one with a charity donation. At the end of the year, the Fitbit provided ‘no improvements in any health outcomes (weight, blood pressure, etc).’

This, though, is perhaps just another indication that fitness trackers are exactly that: tools to track activity levels, rather than directly improve them. As Pitfield says, ‘We aren’t robots’ and we can’t expect a watch to automatically upgrade our fitness levels. For him, the data provided by fitness trackers is simply a benchmark: ‘Something to aim for and data we can look back on to spot patterns should we taper off from our goals.’

Data Is Useless Unless You Know How To Interpret It
Perhaps one of the reasons there’s little evidence linking fitness trackers with improved performance is the fact that, although they arm us with mountains of data, few people have any real idea how to use it. And that, Lane believes, is something the tech manufacturers should take responsibility for.

‘Companies need to explain the data much more clearly,’ he says. ‘Sleep data, for example, isn’t sleep data: it’s how much your hand is moving in the night.’ And those magical 10,000 steps? ‘Just a nice, even number, with very little science behind it. If you try and root out studies that prove it, you can’t – it’s come out of nowhere!’

Fitness Trackers Are Inaccurate
As Lane alludes to in the previous point, another glaring problem with fitness trackers is their inaccuracy. Of course, some are more reliable than others, but for certain measurements – VO2 Max, for example – the technology simply isn’t advanced enough yet to provide an accurate reading. ‘It’s a wild guess based on your heart rate and your speed,’ says Lane. ‘You can’t measure VO2 unless you actually measure the air.’

As for calorie count, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine found that, ‘none of the devices (tested) provided estimates of energy expenditure that were within an acceptable range in any setting.’ Although heart rate measurements were consistently accurate, Professor Euan Ashley, senior author of the study, said ‘energy expenditure measures were way off the mark.’

The RSNG Verdict
We use fitness trackers as a training aid, rather than a tool to govern our entire regime. In making people aware of roughly how active – or, as likely, inactive – they are, fitness trackers can certainly encourage healthier habits. Data alone, however, is neither 100% accurate nor a guarantee for continual improvement. What fitness trackers offer is a unique insight into a range of exercise-related metrics that can act as motivational markers. That’s not to say they make fitness gains any easier to come by – there’s no substitute for hard work and consistency – but they are a valuable tool for anyone seeking to better understand both their current level and what they need to do in order to improve.

WHAT NEXT? Find out what products made tech expert Jeff Rizo’s list of the best fitness trackers of 2018.

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.