There’s no easy answer. And that’s because it really depends. It matters which one you get, what you need it to do for you, what things motivate you to exercise and, most importantly, it depends upon what type of exercise you like to do.
What is a Fitness Tracker? A pedometer, worn on the arm or belt, that simply counts how many steps you take in a day would qualify as the simplest form of fitness tracker. Similarly, there are heart rate monitors with accelerometers that measure calories burned according to exertion based on heart rate as well as number of strides taken. With the emergence of smart phones, apps have been developed that can track a myriad of fitness variables including distance, speed and elevation. Since the app resides on the smart phone, with a quick tap users can share their workouts to their social media pages, creating an accountability aspect to their workouts as well as a built-in cheering section of family and friends. Other apps boast their own communities where workouts are posted to a community forum of other app users which adds an element of competition to the elements of accountability and support.
All of these could be considered wearable fitness trackers since, in order for them to measure exercise output, they must be physically worn (as in a pedometer or heart rate monitor) or carried by hand or in a pocket (as in a smart phone with an app running). But the most sophisticated and quickly emerging fitness trackers are known by the term “wearables” in the fitness industry. Most of them look like a bracelet as shown here:
Manufacturers of the wearable trackers recommend customers wear them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to take full advantage of the parameters the wearables measure. Not only can they measure the same variables app trackers do, but they can also measure quantity and quality of sleep. The information from the wearable is uploaded (often wirelessly) to a companion website (or synced to an app on your phone) so the information can be compiled into a virtual, personalized fitness report. Many allow the user to manually input calorie intake on the site or app so the report can encompass diet along with exercise and sleep fitness.
The case for a tracker: Studies have shown even the simplest pedometer helps to motivate users to move. Particularly those who have started and stopped exercise programs in the past. Logic predicts, and studies also prove, the more variables the device can measure, the more positive feedback and, therefore, motivation it provides. In other words, knowing how many steps you take in a day with a pedometer is great. But, if you wear a heart monitor, you can know that some of those steps were done at a quicker pace or at an incline, therefore indicating a better “quality” of steps, translating to more calories burned. An app can measure the number of steps (via distance) and quality of those steps (via duration time and elevation) and then reward you with a visual map of your workout, scores of “Likes” on your Facebook page and a running total of calories burned for the week. Wearables take the app tracker experience to an entirely new level providing a seemingly limitless number of feedback points each of which can motivate you in different ways.
If the bulk of your exercise (over 85%) is traditional cardiovascular training that can be measured in distance and time (walking, jogging, running, cycling, rowing, hiking, cross-country skiing) and you’re not obsessed with accuracy of calories burned, trackers can be the most valuable piece of fitness equipment you own. If you cycle, row or cross-country ski make sure your tracker can measure that type of movement, as opposed to one that uses a traditional pedometer, or step-motion, that measures walking and running only. Also, if you incorporate hills or mountains in your workouts, make sure your tracker monitors elevation to get the best estimate of calorie burn possible.
It’s important to keep in mind that traditional cardio exercise calorie output can’t be accurately measured unless the exerciser is hooked up to monitors while working out. Any tracker or cardio machine monitor can only give the exerciser an estimate of calories burned, even when you enter variables like age, gender, height and weight and monitor your heart throughout.
Where trackers fall short: This is where trainers and other fitness experts like me start to get a little uncomfortable. If the studies are showing that trackers motivate people to move more than they do now, should we really be raining on their parade? No. But trackers have limitations. For some people, as in the traditional cardio exerciser from above, the limitations are irrelevant and, therefore, trackers are a fantastic fitness tool, perhaps even essential to them being able to maintain a consistent exercise regimen. For others, the limitations of trackers are very relevant making the tracker more likely to de-motivate. How? When fitness equipment is purchased and then not used because it was a poor match for the person, it becomes a constant reminder of failure to adhere to a fitness program – a constant de-motivator. (Think treadmill in the bedroom corner collecting dust and random clothing.)
There is currently no tracker that can give you output credit for strength, flexibility or mind-body training. This is also true for cardio-strength combination or plyometric workouts such as CrossFit, HIIT, Tabata and boot camp classes. The workout and, especially, post-workout calorie burn for these types of intense training workouts far exceeds a traditional steady-state cardio workout but trackers have no way to measure it, let alone estimate it. It’s not the makers of trackers at fault here. Exercise science hasn’t found a way to measure or even estimate calorie output for these types of workouts outside a laboratory yet. If the equipment can’t even detect exercise output, it can’t provide any positive feedback for the user. It can’t be a motivating factor.
If you fall into a category where a fitness tracker is a good fit for you, I highly recommend getting one. Start small (and less expensive) with a heart monitor/accelerometer watch or smart phone app. If you find yourself hooked, a wearable may be just the tool you need to keep you on the right track to a fitter and happier you.