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Beyond tracking steps: How to make digital fitness devices work for you

Introduction

Woman Showing Heartbeat Monitor on ArmWhen did people become so obsessed with tracking every aspect of their health? The answer may surprise you, but we have been tracking our activity in some form since at least the late 1500s. 

Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci created a pedometer to help track the distance a Roman soldier walked, and his version of the pedometer helped the Roman military. In 1780, a Swiss watchmaker took da Vinci’s existing technology and expanded upon it, adding a feature that allowed users to track their steps and distance. Around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a Japanese doctor and engineer collaborated to take the pedometer to the next level. The impetus behind their creation was a concern about the low activity levels of the Japanese during this time. They wanted everyone to walk 10,000 steps per day to get their fitness levels up. This 10,000-step-per-day recommendation would eventually turn into a patent for the pedometer in the 1980s. 

Today, pedometers are still sold at big box and sporting goods stores alike — but we have come a long way in function and design from the square pedometers of the past. The creation of the first-generation Fitbit in 2009 revolutionized the way people take control of their health by allowing people to connect their device to their cellular phones. 

Now, fitness tracking devices have given people the power to evaluate and track the number of steps we take per day, how many calories we are burning, how we sleep and for how long, and how our breathing and heartbeat changes by the hour. The benefits of these sorts of devices are clear, but what about the drawbacks? Some people are concerned about accuracy, privacy, and how often they’ll use the device. Furthermore, some people are not sure what to actually do with all of this data.  

In this article, I will outline the benefits of owning a health and fitness tracking device, potential negative aspects, and how you can use the information you glean from these devices.

What are Health and Fitness Tracking Devices?

 

Man Looking at Fitness Watch While Seated Under a Tree

 

Put simply, health and fitness tracking devices help users gain insights about their athletic performance, number of calories burned, sleep quality and hours of sleep per night, and much more. This data is kept in the device itself or can be accessed through an accompanying app on a smartphone. 

However, before thinking about how technology can help you track and reach your goals, remembering the value of fundamental healthy habits is a great place to start.

“Prior to tracking calories and performance, it is important to develop good fitness habits such as eating a high protein, clean diet and exercising regularly,” said Sergio Pedemonte, Certified Personal Trainer and CEO of the in-home personal training company called Your House Fitness. He trains celebrities like Gina Rodriguez from Jane The Virgin, and O.T Fagbenle from the Handmaid’s Tale and Marvel’s Black Widow. “Once these good habits become routine, then tracking performance, weight gain or weight loss will offer much clearer insight into how variables may affect performance and body composition, allowing for precise modifications of one’s diet or training, aiding in achieving their fitness goals.”

How Do They Work?

Health and fitness tracking devices can be low or high-tech, ranging from a simple pedometer to a fancy watch, depending on your needs. For people who just want to track their steps, pedometers are easy to find, low in cost and easy to use. If you want to gain additional, more in-depth insights into your progress, you may want to invest in a device with a digital component, which I’ll describe in more detail in this article. 

Health and fitness trackers and other wearables work primarily through the use of sensors to measure motion. More specifically, most of the wearables on the market today contain a three-axis accelerometer to track movement in all directions. The data collected through the accelerometer is then converted into what we see — sleep quality and number of hours asleep, number of steps, calories burned, and more.

These devices use self-provided information, such as your height, weight, age and gender, to calculate the number of calories burned. This is why the fit of the device is important. If your Fitbit or Apple Watch is too tight or too loose, the sensors can’t work properly. To do its best work, the device should fit snugly on the wrist.

To track sleep, the trackers use actigraphy, which refers to the way in which your wrist patterns are translated into sleep patterns (Nield, 2017). A more accurate method of measuring sleep is through a technology called polysomnography, which is used in sleep centers to measure sleep through brain activity.

What about Other Trackers and Tech/Fitness Equipment?

 

Woman Using Fitness Watch

Fitness devices like watches (think: Fitbit and Apple Watch) are popular mainstays, but there is a new class of wearables like rings and other devices that can help you take your health data to the next level. Wearables include things that can be worn like accessories or incorporated into clothing.

One such example is the Oura ring, a titanium ring that tracks things like sleep (and how much time you spend in each sleep cycle), heart rate (and changes through the day and night), breathing rate, skin temperature, and more. The data provided by the Oura ring can help you make decisions for how to reduce stress (indicated by high heart rate and irregular breathing patterns), sleep (and how to improve your sleep based on your individual data).

A new sleep device called Go2Sleep can help wearers monitor their sleep using a three-axis sensor, as well as record their blood oxygen and heart rate levels. It can be paired with Apple and Android devices. It even promises to tell you about how often you’re tossing and turning at night.

If you don’t want to wear a device but want some help in reaching fitness goals, you may want to try the Mirror, or related technologies. The mirror is like it sounds — an interactive piece of fitness equipment that you can place on the wall. When it’s switched off, it looks just like a regular mirror and takes up as much space as a mirror would, which makes it a popular choice amongst those who don’t have a lot of space to work out at home. 

When you’re ready to use it, you turn it on and choose a program. There are thousands of live and pre-recorded programs to choose from ranging from yoga to high intensity interval training and everything in between. The programs have levels, too. An instructor will appear on the screen as if you’re following along with a YouTube video or in a live class (Link, 2021). The instructor will demonstrate all of the moves. You’ll wear a heart rate monitor during your workout so data can be collected. The monitor also communicates with the mirror, and the instructors can give you motivation or a push when your heart rate dips, for example. It is compatible with Apple devices, so you can check your progress on the accompanying app. One big benefit of the mirror is that you’re able to check your form while working out, and you’ll have access to many different exercise programs to stream in the comfort of your own home. A potential downside is the cost: A mirror or similar device will cost at least $1,500 or more.

Benefits to Fitness Trackers and Wearables

Tracking your calories burned, steps taken, hours and quality of sleep, and heart rate can help you measure progress over time. These pieces of data can also give you valuable insights into how your exercise routine, your stress levels or the food you eat is impacting your sleep patterns. You can also learn about how your breath can slow your heart rate and give you more restful sleep. 

“Wearables are especially helpful to our runners or those with body fat loss goals. The watches help us track heart rate during the conditioning portions of workouts to estimate how hard they are working and/or how they are adapting to a stimulus over time,” said Zachary Hurley, BS in Kinesiology, NSCA-CSCS, TPI Level-One Movement Specialist at Perform for Life in San Francisco, California. “These devices are great to give the user real-time information that can be used to adjust their training, running pace, and more.”

Understanding the benefits of fitness trackers is just the first step. If you’ve begun tracking aspects of your health, but you don’t know what it all means, it’s time to take a deep dive into getting to know your device. First off, don’t toss the user guide or insert that came with your device into the garbage. Read it over to find out about any important or unique features about your device. For many devices, there is an accompanying app for your Apple or Android device. This app allows you to see your health data at a glance, so ensure you’ve downloaded the latest version. Make sure your device fits well on your wrist or finger, and resize accordingly. Finally, make sure you wear your device when you’ll be engaging in any physical activity. For some people, that means putting the watch on before you head to the gym. For others, that means wearing the watch almost all of the time except when they’re swimming or in the shower. 

Downsides to Fitness Trackers and Wearables

 

Female Hand with Smartwatch Icons

Price, privacy, accuracy are all concerns associated with these devices. 

The price of a wearable ranges in the hundreds to the thousands. For example, an entry-level or basic model of a Fitbit brand wrist or watch-style device will cost you around $80 to $150. An Apple watch will cost you around $400. If these prices are too steep, you may consider purchasing a used or refurbished device. If you’re new to wearables and not sure you’d be using it regularly, you may want to purchase an entry-level device to try out. Then, you can determine if the investment is worth the cost depending on how much you use it.

Some people are concerned about their privacy when wearing one of these devices — questions like, who has access to my information? How is it being used? A research study looking at the Fitbit Flex device shows that there have been security breaches in the past that have left users’ data vulnerable, security issues between the device and the Fitbit web server, and more (Cyr, Horn, Miao, & Specter, 2015). Fitbit’s website encourages users to keep their software up-to-date and to use two-factor authentication for added security in their Fitbit account. Apple uses a lot of the same security features as their other iOS devices, especially because the Apple Watch needs to be paired with an iPhone to work. Furthermore, the device will lock after it senses its been removed from the wrist and can only be unlocked by entering a password. 

Finally, the accuracy of the data acquired by these devices can be concerning to some people. They want to know if they can trust the numbers and health insights. A way to combat this is to understand how your data is collected, how it is used and what it indicates. Keeping your software up-to-date as updates become available is also crucial, no matter what brand of the device you use.

“They are great tools to help with adherence to exercise programs and provide some data that can be used to modify programs,” Hurley said. “We make sure that our clients understand the trackers and watches they wear are not 100% accurate as well. Our clients know to use wearable technology as a tool, but that the numbers on the screen are not an end-all-be-all.”

A research study of the Fitbit Charge 2 involving 15 healthy participants showed that the device underestimates heart rates when compared to an electrocardiograph. In the study, the participants rode a stationary bike for 10 minutes and had their heart rates recorded by the Fitbit and the electrocardiograph (Benedetto et al., 2018). The researchers indicated that the difference in measuring heart rate was modest.

How to Make Fitness and Wellness Data Work for you

So you have some data, now how do you use it? Sleep data can tell us quite a few things. For example, that we should be going to bed earlier (if the data tells us we aren’t getting enough sleep to feel rested). It can also tell us that our sleep quality is poor — or that it is good. Knowing that information can help us incorporate a better nighttime routine, which involves turning lights (and technology) off a few hours before bed time. 

Recent research shows that people should be taking at least 7,000 steps per day (Reynolds, 2021). Daily step counts between 8,000 to 10,000 are more ideal. Playing sports such as tennis, swimming, jogging or playing badminton are also great ways to get exercise (Reynolds, 2021). Two long-term studies followed men and women for decades, looking at the relationship between exercise and longevity. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst working in conjunction with the other academic institutions and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that specific types and amounts of exercise can reduce premature death by as much as 70 percent. Specifically, they found that middle-aged women and men who walked at least 7,000 steps per day when they joined the study were about 50 percent less likely to have died than their counterparts who took less than 7,000 steps per day (Reynolds, 2021).

Whether you’re using an old-fashioned pedometer or a more sophisticated wearable to count your steps, taking more of them in the name of a potentially longer life seems like a worthy activity.

Conclusion

Wearables and health-related devices can be useful in helping you understand how you’re progressing in your fitness goals, how you’re sleeping and burning calories, and more. As a first step, it’s important to ensure you choose the right device for your lifestyle and that fits within your price range. Then, you’ll want to spend some time learning more about how to use your device and what types of data it collects and how to make sense of it. Things to be mindful of when considering the purchase of wearables or fitness technologies include privacy, accuracy, ease of use, and price. For many health and fitness aficionados, the insights gleaned from their devices help them optimize their wellness and understand areas for improvement. 

Author Bio: Nicki Karimpour, PHD

Contributor and Health Advisor 

Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She has previous experience in writing and editing for both print and online publications, and almost a decade of experience in teaching health writing, public health, and public relations at the undergraduate and graduate level. She is based in Los Angeles, California and currently works at the University of Southern California as a director of communications and clinical research. Follow her on Twitter: @NickiKPhD

References

Benedetto, S., Caldato, C., Bazzan, E., Greenwood, D.C., Pensabene, V., Actis, P. (2018). Assessment of the Fitbit Charge 2 for monitoring heart rate. PLoS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192691  

Cyr, B., Horn, W., Miao, D., & Specter, M. (2015). Security analysis of wearable fitness devices (Fitbit). Retrieved from https://media.kasperskycontenthub.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/43/2015/03/20082016/17-cyrbritt-webbhorn-specter-dmiao-hacking-fitbit.pdf 

Link, R. (2021). The mirror fitness device: Is it worth the price? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mirror-review 

Nield, D. (2017). How it works: ​We explain how your fitness tracker measures your daily steps. Retrieved from https://www.wareable.com/fitness-trackers/how-your-fitness-tracker-works-1449 

Reynolds, G. (2021). How much exercise do we need to live longer? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/15/well/move/exercise-daily-steps-recommended.html 

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