Fitness trackers have become insanely popular but how accurate are these fitness quantifiers and more importantly, are they actually helping us lead healthier lives?

Depending on the model, your fitness tracker logs everything from the basics like calories burned and steps taken to  how long you sit without getting up, your sleep patterns, and even your heart rate. Unfortunately, these devices may not be as accurate at measuring said data as users think.

In a new report clinical exercise physiology professor in Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory, Alex Montoye, found that the activity trackers he and his team tested – Fitbit’s Flex, One and Zip, and Jawbone UP24 – overestimated the calories for walking and jogging, but underestimated those for household activities. They did provide “accurate measures of steps for structured activity, similar to much less expensive pedometers.” 

There also seems to be a difference in the accuracy of the end results of a workout versus the real time data a fitness tracker produces. “I have found that end-of-workout metrics seem to be pretty solid training with devices designed to track mileage, caloric burn, pace, and heart rate. That said,  the real time data during a workout is, at times, suspect,” explains Skyler Mosenthal, instructor at SWERVE Fitness. “As a device tries to calculate average caloric burn or pace during the middle of a run, I found the numbers to fluctuate significantly if I were to change my pace/effort. For example, what I knew to be a 6:00 min / mile pace during a workout (confirmed by a wrist watch on a track), the tracking watch I was using at the time would calculate a substantially faster pace than what I was actually running. However,  the end-of-workout metrics were more accurate.

It’s also important to note that fitness trackers are continuously improving in accuracy and precision and that their value goes well beyond simple information gathering. “Trackers are a great way to measure what you’ve been able to do in a stand-alone workout or to track progress over a certain amount of time,” says Mosenthal. “Given society’s obsession with data to legitimize decisions, I think that they can also be a source of motivation to get out and move and reach new fitness goals. In fact, done right, fitness trackers can be a very useful tool to help people go after a fitness program and to set and reach goals.”

Barry’s Bootcamp instructor Omri Rachmut agrees, saying he sees these devices as a conduit for accountability. “Having a constant reminder of fitness goals that you have set for yourself can help keep you on track and focused on making them happen every day.” Rachmut goes on to explain that there may also be great value in the social aspect. “Sharing your stats online with your friends or even setting a friendly competition (or not too friendly!) can be a great motivator.”

However, whether your motivation is data or whether it’s social, it’s important to remember not to let yourself become obsessive about numbers, but rather learn how to use the fitness trackers to leverage the information to your advantage. “If fitness trackers and technology are going to drive your exercising, then you need to learn how to use the tech in the larger context of knowing the limits of your body where you are today and working to intentionally push those limits to improve your fitness in the long run,” says Mosenthal.

So what’s next? At the same time that traditional trackers are gaining precision, a new form of so-called active wearables are emerging. Leading the pack is Smart Rope, a jump rope that via Bluetooth and LED lights projects your number of jumps and keeps track of them on your smartphone. “We’re focused on creating devices you actually use to workout with and the mechanics of the workout themselves are what’s generating the data,” explains president of Tangram America, the maker of Smart Rope, Joen Choe. “Our devices are focused on the actual workout and we only give you data that’s relevant to working out smarter.”

Clearly this is a multifaceted and ever-changing space and while the accuracy of the cut and dry data may be up for debate, there’s not debating that fitness trackers give users a baseline motivation – and that’s always a good thing.

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