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Do Exercise Trackers Make You Healthier?

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Fitbit. Garmin. Apple Watch. Today’s market for wearables that track our activity levels and vitals is huge — it’s on track to generate almost $63 billion in worldwide spending by the end of 2021.

Even though I wear a Yoho Sports Watch religiously to make sure I am hitting my desired number of steps per day, I often wonder if I and others have wasted our money. Can wearables really improve our health? A quick dive into the data and research behind activity trackers reveals that while we might enjoy these fancy gadgets, there’s still a fair amount of debate as to whether they are really useful.

One study from researchers at the Duke-NUS Medical School compared employees who used activity trackers to those who did not. They found that a cash incentive increased employees’ activity levels for six months, but the positive effects of wearing the activity tracker were not sustained when the incentives were stopped after a year. The study concluded that fitness trackers did not significantly improve health outcomes, even with incentives. For real positive effects on health, longer-term incentives would need to be implemented if activity trackers are to be effective.

Another study looked at the accuracy of two popular wrist-worn monitors during daily activity – the Fitbit Charge 2 and the Garmin Vivosmart HR+. The authors found that during steady-state, low-intensity activities such as walking, heart rate measurements were within an acceptable error range (5%) but less accurate during higher intensity, dynamic activities that do not involve wrist motion, such as cycling or biking. Further, the devices’ energy expenditure estimates were inaccurate during all activities, which is troubling for users looking to count calories for weight loss.

However, this doesn’t mean wearable technology is useless. A different study concluded that while wearables have certain limitations, health and wellness professionals can use them to encourage physical activity alongside behavioral health strategies. When used as a tool to cultivate healthy habits, fitness trackers could have considerable benefits.

The bottom line? As technology and insight into human behaviors and habits continue to advance, we will learn more about the efficacy of wearable technology. It’s not perfect, but I’m still going to wear my sports watch every day – that feeling of hitting 10,000 steps in the afternoon makes me pretty happy.

Pursue your passion of helping others live healthy and happy lives. Explore American College of Education's healthcare programs, including the M.Ed. in Health and Wellness Education.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.

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