In the last few years, we’ve seen an explosion in wearable technology and apps that track health and fitness. From GPS watches to monitors that measure what’s happening inside your body, you can get lost in all the options.
These devices claim to help you make healthier choices and reach wellness goals. Do they work? It depends on how you use them, and what you hope to achieve.
Below is an overview of some of today’s most popular health-tracking technology — plus some tips for making the most of it.
Note: This information is not a substitute for talking to your health care provider. It’s also not a recommendation to use any particular technology or tracker.
Step Counters (Pedometers)
There are stand-alone pedometers, watches with built-in step counters, and apps on your smartphone that track steps. In fact, your smartphone may already be measuring your daily steps via a pre-installed health app.
Some work by tracking steps, based on stride length. Others can also measure distance, and tell you overall mileage. Smartphone apps work by sensing movement all day, as long as the phone is on your person.
Step counters are great for:
- Setting goals.
- Being able to measure your activity.
- Reminding you to get up and move more.
You may have heard the recommendation to take 10,000 steps a day. While this is a good overall number to shoot for, it’s not a magic number.
If you’re new to using a step counter, get a baseline idea of how many steps you’re taking in a day. Then, work to increase. Research has shown that increasing by just 1,000 steps a day may lower your overall risk of dying by 22%.
The more steps you add, the more your risk of dying decreases. People taking 11,500 steps a day had a 67% less risk of dying compared to those who took 4,000.
That said, it’s important to set realistic goals as you start to track steps. Going from 1,000 steps a day to 11,000 steps a day may not be sustainable. Try adding 500 more steps a day instead.
As for pedometer accuracy, some research has found that you can’t always rely on their counts. Another study found that waistband pedometers were more accurate than watches or apps. But none of the step counters were dramatically off.
The bottom line: Be consistent about what you use to measure your steps. This way, you are always pulling from the same data source and can better compare.
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Is the GPS on your watch accurate? The answer is complicated, but the short answer is, not exactly. Walk the same route two days in a row, and your watch or phone app may show different mileage each time.
This is because your watch or phone relies on getting signals from outer space to continually geolocate you. A lot of things can get in the way, like clouds, trees, and tall buildings. But as with pedometers, GPS is usually close enough.
It won’t be as accurate as a certified race course, but it will help you keep track and increase mileage.
Calorie Counters and Diet Tracking Apps
We know from research that food logging and self-monitoring calories can help people lose weight. But can calorie-counting apps help you? There are certainly scores of them out there — some free and others paid.
Often, these apps have you input your current weight and your goal weight and then suggest a daily calorie intake. The app then allows you to track your weight and fill out a food diary.
These apps usually have huge databases of calorie counts of foods. They also allow you to scan nutritional information or connect to restaurant calorie counts.
You can see progress toward your goals, connect with other people, and even get recipes and other tips. This tracking alone can help many people. But it’s important to remember that health and weight loss is more than numbers on a screen.
Not only that, research has shown that different bodies absorb the energy of calories from the same foods differently. One reason is our varying gut microbes. Gut microbes help you digest food and turn it into energy.
In fact, there’s often a 10 to 20% discrepancy in how your body absorbs energy over someone else’s. Over time, that could be substantial.
Overall, calorie counting and food diary apps can certainly be helpful. But it’s likely less about the app itself than it is the attention you’re paying to your food choices. If an app helps you pay better attention, it’s definitely worth it.
Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGM)
A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) is a device that helps people track their blood sugar levels. It involves a small sensor under your skin, usually on the belly or arm. The sensor then sends data to a device, like your phone, a smartwatch, or a special hand-held monitor.
You can then use the device to see your blood sugar level whenever you want — and review the data the sensor has collected over time. Depending on what model of CGM you have, you will need to replace the sensor every seven to 14 days.
If you have diabetes, your doctor can tell you if a CGM is right for you. You may still need to check your blood sugar twice a day with a finger prick and a standard glucose meter. That’s because these devices are less accurate than the standard finger-prick test. Talk to your doctor about the best strategy for monitoring your levels.
But non-diabetics are starting to use these too. For example, some athletes may track their blood sugar to fine-tune their diet — especially during endurance activities like marathons.
The idea is that an athlete can track when their glucose is running low during a workout. That way, they know when to eat or drink. But research isn’t yet clear how beneficial they are.
Some doctors may also recommend them to people with prediabetes. Knowing your blood sugar level can help you understand the impact of your diet and exercise on your blood sugar. This can help you make choices about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and when to exercise.
Sleep Tracking Apps
Getting enough sleep helps you feel better overall. We also know that people who don’t get enough sleep have higher rates of obesity. Plus, disturbed sleep patterns can lead to more snacking.
Can technology help?
There are dozens of apps that say they can help you fall asleep and then track your sleep. One of the keys to accuracy is whether there’s a wearable component or not.
For example, some apps have you wear a ring that detects sleep by measuring what’s happening in your finger’s arteries. The device tracks time asleep, heart rate, and body temperature. Experts say that it’s fairly accurate because it’s based on your body’s signals.
Other wearable devices that sense sleep include wrist-based fitness trackers or watches.
Knowing how much you’re sleeping at night, and the quality of sleep, can be helpful.
For one, it can detect sleep apnea. But it also provides data about when you fall into the deepest phase of sleep. You might realize you need to go to bed earlier or change other sleep habits.
Before spending money on any health or fitness app, read reviews and ask around. And be wary of any subscription you can’t easily cancel. So get moving, get tracking, and contact UPMC Weight Loss Services with any questions.
American Heart Association. Upping Your Step Count, Even in Small Amounts, may Increase Life Span. Link.
BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care. Drivers of Weight Loss in a CDC-recognized Digital Diabetes Prevention Program. Link.
Good Housekeeping. 12 Best Sleep Apps to Download in 2023. Link.
Human Kinetics Journal. The Use of Continuous Glucose Monitors in Sport: Possible Applications and Considerations. Link.
Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology. Behavior Modification in Prediabetes and Diabetes: Potential Use of Real-Time Continuous Glucose Monitoring. Link.
Journal of Medical Internet Research. What Matters in Weight Loss? An In-Depth Analysis of Self-Monitoring. Link.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Continuous Glucose Monitoring. Link.
New York Times. Why Your GPS Watch is Not Entirely Accurate. Link.
Nutrients. Sleep Deprivation: Effects on Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance. Link.
Physiotherapy. Measuring Step Count: Why it is Important Not to Assume Measures are Reliable. Link.
Popular Science. The Truth About Counting Calories. Link.
VeryWellFit. Accuracy of Apps Compared to Fitness Bands. Link.
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