These devices may be popular, but do they actually help improve your health?
Fitness trackers can be beneficial — when used effectively. They can help people who want to track progress toward a goal, such as running a race or losing weight. For others, they may be nothing more than a fashion accessory — or even an impediment.
Learn more about the benefits — and potential downsides — of wearing a fitness tracker.
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Benefits of Wearing a Fitness Tracker
Encourages you to get up and move every hour
Many fitness trackers monitor how many steps you take per hour. If you don’t hit a particular target (say, 250 steps), your tracker can alert you that you’ve been sedentary for too long.
Encourages you to take a certain number of steps per day
One of the big features of fitness trackers is that they count how many steps you take per day. This figure is an estimate based on the movement of a gyroscope within the devices because people’s arms swing a bit when they walk.
Most trackers come with a default target of the number of steps you should take per day — typically 10,000. But you can customize this number up or down depending on your current baseline.
There’s nothing magical about 10,000 steps. A Journal of the American Medical Association study found that older women who increased their steps had a lower mortality rate. If you walk less than 10,000 steps per day, you can improve your health by slowly increasing your average number.
“Walking 10,000 steps a day is a great start, but what most of us really need is to lose some weight or improve conditioning,” says James Dewar, MD, of Bloomfield-Garfield Family Health Center-UPMC.
Encourages you to get your heart rate up
Most fitness trackers don’t only track how many steps you take; they also track your heart rate. If you create a profile with your sex and age, you will get heart rate ranges for moderate and intense physical activity. You will also see your maximum heart rate.
This feature can help you meet the recommended minimums of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week and 75 minutes of intense activity per week.
Hitting or exceeding this goal can help reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia. It can also help you lose weight, improve mood and sleep, and promote cognitive and bone health.
Helps you to see how active you are
This fact is especially true of people who may not be getting enough “exercise” but are active throughout the day (e.g., nurses, wait staff, laborers, and parents of young children).
In a study called “Mindset Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect,” researchers told hotel workers their job is good exercise and meets health guidelines. Even though they didn’t change their work habits, thinking they were exercising made them healthier, like losing weight and lowering blood pressure.
Helps you understand — and optimize — your sleep
Some fitness trackers will give you data not just on your activity but on your inactivity — namely, sleep. It’s a rough estimate, of course, based on your heart rate (which drops when you fall asleep) and also your percent of oxygen saturation.
They do this using a technology called photoplethysmography. The tracker shines light on your skin and measures how much light comes back, which changes if there’s more or less oxygen in your blood.
Some trackers estimate how much time you spend in each sleep phase (light, deep, REM) — and how much time you spend awake during the night.
We can sum up the benefit of all this sleep tracking in eight words: The better you sleep, the better your health. The opposite is also true. According to the National Institutes of Health, not getting enough quality sleep regularly raises the risk of many diseases and disorders. These range from heart disease and stroke to obesity and dementia.
Downsides of Fitness Trackers
Despite their benefits, fitness trackers have some potential downsides you should be aware of.
The ‘halo’ effect
Fitness trackers can produce the so-called “health halo.” Just owning and wearing the device can give people the false sense that they are healthier.
For example, if you walk 10,000 steps in a day and then reward yourself with a piece of cake, you may undermine your progress. One research study showed that people who wore a fitness tracker ended up gaining weight.
Solution: First. being aware of this potential downside can help you avoid it. Try not to “reward” yourself with high-sugar or high-fat “treats.” If you’re hungry after a workout, focus on eating lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and complex, high-fiber whole grains and beans.
Also, be sure to track your weight — and the fit of your clothing — after you start wearing a fitness tracker. It’s not impossible that your weight may increase a bit if you’re building muscle mass and losing or maintaining body fat.
If you find that you’re gaining weight and your clothes are getting tighter, take a break from the fitness tracker. If you try a couple of times with the same result, a fitness tracker may not be for you.
May foster anxiety or obsession
Wearing a fitness tracker can become a source of anxiety or obsession for some people. For example, if you keep checking steps or heart rate, you might feel upset if you don’t reach your goals. Also, comparing your progress with friends can make you feel like you’re not doing enough.
Worrying about not wearing it or not sleeping well because of what it says can also make you anxious. Plus, focusing too much on weight or how you look can make you feel unhappy. Remember, it’s important to have fun and listen to your body, not just the numbers.
Can increase your risk of injuries
If your fitness tracker makes you too motivated to improve, you may try to ramp up physical activity too fast. This can increase your chance of injury.
Solution: Ramp up slowly. If you’re engaging in a new activity, try joining a group exercise class or working with a physical trainer. They can give you pointers on how to do new activities safely and help you set realistic goals for how fast to ramp up.
May decrease your physical activity
For many people, a fitness tracker can increase how much physical activity they get. But maybe you are a busy mom chasing young children. Or you work at a job that keeps you on your feet all day, like nursing, waitressing, or construction.
In that case, you may easily hit your daily step goals — and then some. But if your fitness tracker causes you to skip that evening walk or visit the gym, it may decrease your fitness.
Solution: If you find you are less active due to your fitness tracker, it may not be for you. Maybe you could pass it along to a family member or friend or at least rethink how you will use the data it gathers.
Tips for Using Your Fitness Tracker Effectively
So, what can you do to stay healthy with a fitness tracker?
- Set daily goals appropriate to your lifestyle rather than using the presets.
- If you’re regularly hitting your goal, challenge yourself to add another 1,000 to 2,000 steps per day.
- Make sure you’re getting your heart rate up enough over the course of the week. (Moderate physical activity 150 minutes per week — or 75 minutes per week of intense physical activity.)
- If you have a fitness tracker, wear it at all times to help provide an accurate reading of your progress.
- Create your profile and make sure that you are calibrating your device to your body.
- Connect your fitness tracker to various apps that work together for your health.
- Use the tracker’s social features to connect with people who have similar goals.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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