Should You Splurge on a Fitness Tracker?

by | Updated: November 11th, 2016 | Read time: 3 minutes

Do you struggle to get off your couch and out to the gym? If so, you may have wondered if an exercise tracker is the answer to staying trim and fit.

Man Checking Fitness Tracking Wristband Device During Exercise |

These little devices — the most famous of which is the Fitbit — wrap comfortably around your wrist and typically record many aspects of physical well-being, including:

  • The distance you walk or run
  • The amount of calories you consume
  • Your heartbeat
  • The quality of your sleep

Fitness trackers promise to motivate people to take better care of their health. But recent studies have questioned their effectiveness.

For example, University of Pittsburgh researchers discovered that people who wear activity monitors actually lose less weight than people who do not.

Among other possible explanations, researchers speculated that people who closely track their activity might feel more inclined to reward themselves with food.

A separate study published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal also found that people who use fitness trackers generally do not exercise vigorously enough to improve their health,

Participants in the study showed little improvement in the form of weight loss, lower blood pressure or better cardiorespiratory fitness. Even worse, just 10 percent of participants who used fitness trackers at the beginning of the study were still using them 12 months later. 

How fitness trackers can help your workout

Despite such findings, it’s probably a mistake to say that fitness trackers do not offer any benefits.

Fitness trackers typically have the ability to count a person’s steps, which can ease beginners into a fitness regimen, says Lee Jordan, a Jacksonville Beach, Fla.-based health coach, personal trainer and behavior change specialist certified by the American Council on Exercise.

“Getting started with exercise can be the biggest barrier to entry,” Jordan says. “Step counts provide an easy, gradual way to begin.”

Fitness trackers also keep people more aware of their exercise patterns, and such mindfulness is a key to successful behavioral change, Jordan says.

The fun aspects of fitness trackers also can be motivating. These include Fitbit “challenges,” in which you compete with family and friends to see who can rack up the greatest number of steps over a period of time.

However, fitness trackers cannot provide any of these benefits if they remain tucked away in a dresser drawer.  Research by the consulting firm Endeavour Partners found that one-third of people who own fitness trackers no longer use them after six months.

“Purchasing an umbrella will only help keep you dry in a rainstorm if you use it,” Jordan says. “The best fitness tracker is the one a person will actually wear and use consistently.”

Making the most of a fitness tracker

Even when used well, fitness tracking devices have limitations. Jordan says they don’t always precisely calculate the amount of calories people burn.

In addition, they tend to lag when measuring heart rate information, which makes them less than ideal for forms of exercise that depend on such data, such as interval training.

Despite such drawbacks, Jordan says fitness trackers are “uniquely positioned to provide dynamic feedback” and to “fuel a person’s actions to match their intentions.”

He also is hopeful that a new wave of devices that combine a fitness tracker and watch — such as the Apple Watch and the Fitbit Blaze — will be more likely to be worn and used.

If you struggle to use a fitness tracker effectively, Jordan suggests working with a health coach or fitness trainer who can help you develop the skills to use a tracker in a way that produces “sustainable results.”

Finally, if nothing else seems to work, take off your fitness tracker and join an exercise class. Jordan says group exercise is the most effective and cost- efficient way to motivate people to exercise and stick with it.

“An excellent group fitness class provides support, fun and accountability, and has an ethos of empowerment,” he says.