Do fitness trackers really work?

The answer is yes - and no - and a lot depends on how you’re using them 

Everyone seems to be wearing fitness trackers these days    – you might even own one yourself. But, while some of them promise to improve your health by tracking everything from how many steps you take to what your sleep quality is like, the real question is, do they actually work?

The good news is that, while ‘health wearables ’, the label given to fitness, or activity trackers, are still relatively new in the technology industry, researchers have already started to  put them through their paces. And the results make for interesting reading. 

On the plus side

It seems   that if you wear an activity tracker for a while, you’re more likely to move more. That’s according to a study published in 2015, which found that even though half of the relatively inactive overweight postmenopausal women they followed were  wearing trackers, the women didn’t all nail their fitness goals completely, but they did do significantly  more exercise each week compared with women who were wearing a standard pedometer only. And they took more than 700 extra  steps a day on average , as well compared with the women wearing pedometers. 

Wearing a tracker might also help you lose weight. A survey of Americans using a popular weight-loss app reported that they dropped more kilos  once they paired the app with an activity tracker.

On the flip side

The main thing to know is that while activity trackers count some things, like how many steps you take, pretty accurately, research shows that they don’t necessarily perform as well when it comes to tracking other measures like sleep , or how many kilojoules you’ve burned, which can be out by as much as 15 per cent .  

Then there’s the old ‘less is more’ effect, with one US study finding that while devices that hit you with stats about your performance do encourage you to be more active, they can also make that physical activity seem less enjoyable . 

And, if some studies are anything to go by, it seems like we’re also at risk of getting bored with these devices pretty quickly. On average, 1 in 3 Americans surveyed ditched their activity tracker after just six months . 

How to make it work

If you’ve got a fitness tracker, or are about to buy one, here’s how to help you get the most out of it. 
Be consistent -  Make sure you wear the tracker on the same wrist every day . But above all, make sure you wear it – it can’t do anything if it’s sitting on your bedside table. 

Personalise it - Punch in your height and weight accurately when you first set up the device, and update the info as soon as your weight changes. And if your tracker features a function that allows you to calibrate the length of your walking stride, and lets you interact with the sleep function, do it. Those things may also help improve accuracy. 

Check in -  If the device you’ve got provides instant, real-time data about your activity levels by syncing automatically with a mobile app, use it – as often as possible. Research suggests  doing that this may translate into helping motivate people to do more exercise. 
Set realistic goals -  And review them regularly. A 2016 study found that rather than striving for generic ‘fixed goals’ – like the 10,000 steps that a lot of activity trackers use as a starting position – tailoring your goals to suit your level of fitness, and updating them as you progress, can help you stick with your fitness program. 

Be social -  Most activity trackers allow you to share your achievements and progress via social media , and that can be a good strategy – as  it can help you stay motivated. 
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