There are plenty of places to briskly walk and run in Houston. And if you happen to have a fitness tracker attached to your wrist or in your pocket, you’ll know how many steps you took after doing such activities. Seemingly everywhere, these days, fitness trackers spit out a bunch of stats ranging from your heart rate and blood pressure to how many calories you burn. While such info is useful, your handy fitness tracker may be a bit misleading if you are solely relying on it to make lifestyle choices and adjustments to your fitness routine.
Physically Demanding and Light Activities
An Iowa State University study tested the accuracy of eight different fitness trackers. Subjects were asked to participate in various activities ranging from strenuous to light. In some cases, there was a 23 percent inaccuracy rate with how calories burned were calculated. A University of Nebraska study suggests that trackers may be off on energy expenditure by 15 percent either way.
Part of the reason for such discrepancies may be the choice of activities. For instance, if you go for a daily jog, run, or brisk walk, you are more likely to get an accurate count of calories burned than if your preferred activities are gardening or yoga.
Why the Discrepancy?
The reason for the discrepancy between stats reported for physically demanding activities and lighter activities has to do with how trackers normally work. Sensors inside of most of these devices, called accelerometers, measure activity levels based on detectable motions and movements. If you are not making a lot of excessive motions or working up much of a sweat in the garden, your tracker may underestimate how many calories you happen to be actually burning.
The same goes with routine activities like housecleaning or washing a car. There’s also a difference with how many calories you’ll burn when going for a walk on a hot and humid day as opposed to one where there’s a cool breeze.
Assessing Sleep Patterns
Some trackers claim they can help you track your sleep patterns so you can get a more restful night’s sleep. Trackers that only use accelerometers to track motions can’t do this with much accuracy. You are likely to be moving the same, whether you’re in a lighter stage or a deeper stage of sleep. Therefore, you’re not going to get a detailed account of how productive your rest is if you just go by what your tracker is telling you.
If you have difficulty sleeping, the most reliable test is one performed in a lab setting called a polysomnography or an electroencephalography (EEG), which measures brain waves to identify various stages of sleep. You can’t get this kind of detail from your fitness tracker.
Reliable Fitness Tracker Data
This does not mean that a fitness tracker is a waste of money.
Some stats your fitness tracker reports are highly reliable and can help you and your doctor identify potential health issues. In addition to measuring your heart rate and blood pressure, some trackers identify variations in your heartbeats. Ideally, you want to have fluctuations in your heart rate throughout the day.
It means your heart is strong and able to adapt to your various daily movements and activities. Stats like this are good to know and it’s also important to see this data presented in a way that is easily accessible and sharable (with your doctor). Straightforward biological data, in general, tends to be reliable with most fitness trackers.
How About Those Daily Steps?
This is another area where fitness trackers perform fairly well. There are enough reliable studies suggesting that the majority of wearable devices that track daily steps do so accurately most of the time.
When used for the purpose of keeping tabs on how much walking you have done each day, fitness trackers can be a safe and effective motivational tool. Sitting for too long contributes to an assortment of health issues including poor posture and low back pain, so a gentle nudge from your device is a good thing in this case.
Are You Choosing the Right Tracker?
Accelerometer-based devices like the popular FitBit use standard equations to make estimates of energy expenditure. If your top priority is keeping track of your heart rate, you’ll get more accurate results if you choose a device that specifically monitors the number of times your heart is beating per minute.
Heart-rate monitors also consider factors such as your age, gender, height, weight, and general physical activity level. Your resting heart rate will also be considered when determine how many calories you’ve burned from your various movements.
What It Means for Your Health
Getting stats that aren’t truly reflective of your fitness level could have an impact on your overall health.
Let’s say your tracker is telling you that you need to be more active while you may be opting for lighter activities that are better for you based on your capabilities. If this is the case, making an effort to be more physical with your activities without proper preparation or guidance could lead to injuries from muscle strain.
On the other hand, if your tracker tells you that you’re burning more calories than you really are, you may use this as an excuse to overindulge at lunch or dinner or ease up on your daily activities, which also isn’t good for your health either.
What About Those Built-In Goals?
The basic purpose of a fitness tracker is to use your physical activity level to determine whether or not you are meeting the device’s built-in goals. If you are not getting a correct measurement of your daily energy level, you may become frustrated over not meeting goals, although such measurements are not based on accurate data.
All that stressing over meeting goals set by one device can have a serious impact on your health and contribute to a whole new set of issues that may affect your health. Even if your goals are fairly precise for you, there may be certain factors a fitness tracker can’t consider, such as your long-term goals and any physical limitations or restrictions.
Quality of Your Fitness Tracker Matters
Not all fitness trackers are created equal. Some will only use blood pressure to track your heart health while others will look for patterns and trends. Some trackers only use one set of sensors while others are more sophisticated internally and include GPS and other data collection technology.
This doesn’t mean you have to opt for the one with the most bells and whistles or the highest price tag to get accurate and useful results. Before buying any type of tracker, determine what stats are really important based on your health and fitness priorities. You may want to get some input from your doctor or consult with a licensed trainer if you need to fine-tune your workout to manage existing health problems.
Boosting the Accuracy of Your Fitness Tracker
Fitness trackers, regardless of brand, will require some preparation and perspective on the part of the user. Take the time to enter your personal info (height, age, weight, etc.) so you’ll get more accurate estimates for how active you should be throughout your day. Maintain consistency with where you place your tracker. Putting it in different places when you take it with you could give you different results each time.
Calibrate your device. Even if it’s one that is already all set when you get it, you may need to adjust it again if you start to get significantly different results for no apparent reason. Use your tracker as a guide, but don’t assume it’s an accurate picture of your overall health, which is why it makes sense to get some input from your doctor.
When used properly, fitness trackers have many potential health benefits. For your own peace of mind and safety, however, you may be better off considering your fitness tracker as a health care tool rather than your primary guide for daily activities.
Consider sharing the stats you get from tracker with your doctor to see if there is general agreement with what’s being reported. If there are inconsistencies or inaccuracies, focus more on a common sense approach to fitness that works best for you, regardless of what your fitness band or watch is telling you.