Fitness trackers have come a long way over the past few years, expanding from counting steps and calories burned to tracking sleep time and quality, heart rate, fitness scores and more. While research shows that using a fitness tracker can make it easier to reach your health goals, these wrist companions come with some downsides, as well. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of using fitness trackers and tips for using yours in a positive way.
Fitness tracker benefits
Thinking of starting the new year with a fitness tracker? There are plenty of smart reasons to try one out.
Plain and simple, these devices are designed to get us moving. “Fitness trackers are brilliant from a sport psychology standpoint as they can serve as yet another impetus to exercise,” says Daniel O’Neill, M.D., Ed.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and sports psychologist based in Plymouth. N.H. “Ultimately, this is all that matters.” The key here, however, is to use the numbers (such as number of steps, number of flights of stairs climbed, duration in the cardio zone) to look for ways to improve — but don’t let them control you, says Dr. O’Neill.
They help you to set and work toward tangible goals.
At their essence, fitness trackers work by allowing you to set daily goals and then monitor your progress toward the attainment of those goals, says Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Ph.D., FACSM, FNAK, professor of exercise psychology at Iowa State University. “While we do not know for sure how goals work, we presume that they act by focusing one’s attention on the task at hand despite the presence of distractions and by helping re-prioritize things,” he adds. For example, knowing that your close to achieving your daily activity goal may lead you to prioritize physical activity over other options (e.g., going for a walk instead of sitting down to take a call, or hopping on an exercise bike instead of lounging on the couch during your favorite TV show).
They can bring out your competitive side.
Some people may get a thrill from the competition aspect of fitness trackers, whether that’s competing against friends or relatives for the most steps or active minutes, or simply competing with yourself to beat a past record. That’s where the social aspect of fitness tracker apps comes into play. Connecting them to social media accounts or having challenges or competitions among your connections within the app is motivating when your results are posted for all to see.
They can help you increase your fitness.
While the standard recommendation is 10,000 steps a day, Dr. O’Neill says he tells his patients that number is a low bar. “As hunter-gatherers, we are genetically programmed for twice that,” he says, recommending that people with “no fitness” start with 10,000. That may seem overwhelming at first, but fitness trackers can help you determine where you’re at currently (you may be shocked at how few steps you’re actually taking while working from home, for instance) and give you the means to track your improvement.
“[Hitting your fitness goals] should not be misery, but it should be mildly challenging and at the end of the week, satisfying,” says Dr. O’Neill. “At the end of the month, you should be feeling stronger and healthier — not exhausted.”
They can help you be honest with yourself.
Be accurate when adding your data about your height, weight, age and fitness levels if you’re just getting started with a fitness tracker. Then, they can more accurately reveal (and help you improve) your heart rate zones and more. Dr. O’Neill says it doesn’t matter how you clock your steps or active minutes — whether that’s running up and down stairs, doing jumping jacks or taking your dog on a swift walk — the point is that you hit your goals. If you’re not reaching them, you can look at the data and make adjustments as needed.
Drawbacks to using a fitness tracker
Relying too much on a fitness tracker has its downsides.
They can give you too much information.
Fitness trackers collect data on so much more than steps now. They can measure your heart rate, quality of sleep, “readiness” to exercise, responsiveness and more — leading to data overload that can be confusing or a pathway to worrying about things that aren’t real concerns. If you are concerned over any data your fitness tracker is providing to you, such as an elevated heart rate at night, step away from Googling for information and talk with your doctor instead.
“He or she will tell you what data is important and what is not,” Dr. O’Neill says. In general, the overall job of fitness trackers is to give you information you need to make positive changes. “Like the stock market, you should not try to analyze your data every day,” he adds. “You want to look for trends.”
They can take the fun out of moving.
When your physical activity becomes so focused on achieving a specific goal, it’s easy to forget to actually enjoy the moment. Instead of soaking up the experience and scenery of running a 5K race, for example, you might be focused on hitting 10,000 steps before lunch and miss the little details that make it a memorable point in time.
“In the long run, people tend to choose activities that are reliably associated with joy and pleasure,” says Ekkekakis. “If the only pleasure comes from the attainment of the goal, there is a risk of it wearing off after a while.”
He stresses that it’s important to learn to enjoy physical activity itself without focusing on the attainment of a goal. After that initial period, attaining your goal should simply be a positive side effect that happens while you’re having fun being active.
They can create an all-or-nothing habit.
People have the tendency to look at goals as an all-or none issue that defines their self worth (i.e., I achieved my goal, therefore I’m great; or I did not reach my goal, therefore I’m terrible), says Ekkekakis. This becomes negative when, on days that may be busier than usual, someone might take the approach of not even bothering to try to take steps that day (i.e., closing the circles on their Apple watch) knowing they won’t hit their goal. This is a downside to fitness trackers because “clearly, getting to 50 percent of your goal is much better than 0 percent of the goal,” Ekkekakis adds.
They can lead to disappointment.
As motivating as the competition aspect of fitness trackers can be, it can be equally de-motivating if you find yourself frequently coming up short. All competitions, including these within fitness trackers, have “winners” who will feel happy and proud, and “losers” who will feel dejected and disappointed. Everyone has different schedules and responsibilities, meaning activity levels can vary widely.
“In the long run, this is why social comparisons with fitness trackers generally prove to be a bad idea, says Ekkekakis. He adds that most fitness trackers now enable individual-specific goal setting in addition to social comparisons or competitive features to get around this.
They can lead to obsession.
It is possible that all that data your fitness tracker collects for you can be too much of a good thing. For instance, if you opt to wear your tracker over a beautiful piece of jewelry to an event because you don’t want to miss the steps, or you miss a New Year’s Eve party because it’s 7 p.m. and you realize you need to log 8 more miles to hit your goal for the year — “you’re past the tipping point,” says Dr. O’Neill. He adds that unless you are a professional athlete, no one should hold themselves hostage to an arbitrary number.
“I am not suggesting you let yourself off the hook on a regular basis,” he adds, “just don’t ruin a relationship (or a good party) over something that should improve your life.”
The bottom line on fitness trackers
The new year is a great time to make changes to your health and the habits that contribute to your overall well-being, and fitness trackers provide a smart, easy way to assess where you are now and monitor your progress. Research shows that fitness trackers are beneficial in sustaining motivation in the short term; the problem is in maintaining motivation in the long run, which is where the “novelty” effect of the gadgets tends to wear off. That’s why Ekkekakis says it’s key to prioritize being active to derive pleasure and enjoyment from the movement, and monitoring goals through fitness trackers as secondary.
Dr. O’Neill says he’s in favor of anything that helps motivate you to live a healthier lifestyle, such as fitness trackers, and you can have fun with them, too, just like any other fitness equipment. At the end of the day, remember that these devices are machines that exist to work for you — so “don’t let them be the boss,” he adds.