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How Fitness Trackers Are Making People Move More

Fitness Trackers

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fitness trackers use a combination of several different technologies, including GPS, to provide you with information about your activities
  • Trackers can monitor heart rate, sleep, calories burned and the number of steps you take each day
  • To get the most from your tracker you may want to consider factors such as cost, functions, data loss and sport specificity

By Dr. Mercola

Common sense tells you that if you don't use your muscles, you'll lose muscle tone and strength. If you've not routinely exercised, starting a new strength program will yield results in weeks instead of months. Even if you routinely strength train, switching your program may yield faster results.

Your body was made for movement. With over 300 joints in the human body, you're capable of twists, turns, bending and movement through three planes in space.1 Unfortunately, more than half of the average American's time awake is spent sitting.2

Fitness trackers are an option that may help keep you moving, increase your motivation through feedback and help you gain fitness and lose weight. There are several considerations when you use these technologically based fitness gadgets.

Wearing Technology Is Not a New Idea

In the 17th century, Chinese mathematicians made use of an abacus on a ring. Tiny beads across nine rows and a thin metal rod were mounted on a ring to allow mathematical tasks without writing.3

It was the end of the 19th century before watches were being worn on your wrist instead of hanging around your neck.

Dr. Yoshiro Hatano, Japanese professor at Kyushu University of Health and Welfare, theorized taking 10,000 steps each day would help combat obesity in his country. In 1965 he introduced the Manpo-kei pedometer4 named for his theory.

It was nearly another 20 years before a heart rate monitor, using basic electrocardiogram (EKG) technology and a radio chest strap was released on the market.

In 1996, then President Clinton declared the 29-satellite constellation used primarily for the military global positioning system (GPS) open for civilian use. This paved the way for more sophisticated tracking devices.

In 2006, Nokia introduced new technology that could track your movement up, down and side to side. Combined with GPS tracking, the new fitness trackers could now more accurately read the calories you burned and distance you covered during exercise.5

Why Fitness Trackers May Make a Difference in Your Routine

Researchers interested in how fitness trackers may impact fitness routines of older women completed and published a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.6

The study evaluated older women using Fitbits, a wearable device with an associated web application to track and graph information.

The researchers enrolled 51 women who routinely got 33 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise. They were post-menopausal and overweight. The group was split into two; the first group used a pedometer and the second a Fitbit.

Each group was asked to significantly increase their activity level, performing 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity, and to include 10,000 steps per day. Unfortunately, after 16 weeks neither of the groups had reached the fitness goals set by the researchers.

However, the researchers did find the group using a fitness tracker increased their overall exercise time per week by 38 minutes, while those using the pedometer did not have a significant increase.7

This study didn't prove that your fitness tracker would cause you to move more, but the experimental group did appear to experience several benefits that could impact your overall health.

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6 Ways to Benefit From Your Fitness Tracker

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and its Health Research Institute, 21 percent of Americans had adopted the use of wearable smart technology in 2014.8 In 2015, Time Magazine declared that fitness trackers are here to stay.9

Statistics appear to support that view. The market grew by 684 percent in the first half of 2014, compared with the first half of 2013.

CDW Healthcare, which tracks healthcare information technology (IT) trends, anticipates a compound annual growth rate of 65 percent between 2014 and 2020, bringing annual sales from $2 billion to $41 billion.10

Whether this growth in sales and use of wearable fitness trackers will make a significant difference in your fitness and overall health will depend on your pattern of use over time.

As with most fitness programs, consistency pays rewards. Here are six benefits you may experience by using your fitness tracker consistently.


Many of the mid-range to higher-end trackers come with an associated website application that may track your activity level, time, calories burned and number of hours of sleep. This feedback may be either positively or negatively motivating.11

Feedback isn't typically neutral. How you interpret the feedback, either positively or negatively, will affect your future actions and behaviors. While fitness trackers do provide feedback, it's up to you to interpret the information.

When you fail to reach your daily step goal, does that motivate you to do better and walk more tomorrow, or to reach for comfort food to ease your self-reproach?


Although accuracy is important to setting and achieving your personal goals,12 not all fitness trackers are as accurate as you might want them to be.13

According to research from Arizona State University, trackers more accurately record moderate and vigorous activity but may not interpret your light activity as movement.

However, complete accuracy is not important to tracking your fitness goals. It's a bit like getting weighed on different scales, with and without your clothes or shoes. The point will be to compare the general feedback from yesterday to today and recognize if you are falling short, meeting or exceeding your goals.

If your goal is to achieve 10,000 steps each day, you'll want your fitness tracker to generally meet that number, and not fall short by 2,000 steps. The goal is to increase your overall movement above your baseline measurement.14


You probably know someone who uses a wearable fitness tracker, making this a good platform for accountability. Being accountable to someone means you'll have to answer for accomplishing or failing an assignment. In business and personal goal achievement, accountability typically yields positive results.

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), accountability may result in improved performance, better commitment to the job, increased feelings of competency and better satisfaction with your results.15

Each of these positive results from being accountable to a partner may improve your potential to reach the goals you set for fitness or weight loss.

While previous studies with fitness trackers have demonstrated significant increases in movement patterns, the research did not include using an accountability partner.

Heart Rate Monitoring

During moderate and vigorous activity you may want to track your heart rate. How high your heart rate rises during perceived vigorous or moderate activity and how quickly it decreases during rest periods is a measure of your fitness level.16

How fast your heart rate drops in the first minute after vigorous exercise is also a good indicator of your heart health.

An abnormally slow drop in the first minute is a powerful predictor of poor heart health, potentially leading to death.17 An abnormal rate is fewer than 12 beats per minute less than your rate during exercise.

Sleep Monitoring

Quality sleep is one of the important pillars in your overall health. Some fitness monitors have the capability to monitor your sleep patterns. You'll learn how many hours you actually slept and some monitors may be able to tell you how many minutes you were restless.

If you find you're having difficulty falling asleep or don't feel rested in the morning when you wake up, you may want to try these tips to help you fall asleep and rest well from my previous article titled, "Want a Good Night's Sleep? Then Never Do These Things Before Bed."

Once you've worn your fitness tracker to bed for several nights, the device may be able to review your data and even make recommendations about when the best time to go to bed would be for your sleep patterns.18

Behavior Changes

Some wearers find they have improved amount of physical activity while wearing their fitness tracker.19 Other behavioral changes that are possible with feedback from your fitness tracker are improved sleep patterns and eating habits when you interpret the feedback positively.

How to Use Your Fitness Tracker Effectively

Fitness trackers have the ability to monitor your heart rate. By monitoring your heart rate during exercise, or activities in fitness tracker parlance, you may optimize your workout. In this video I discuss how you can integrate Peak Fitness with heart rate monitoring to achieve your fitness goals.

If you'd like to use a fitness tracker to get fit, there are several factors you'll want to consider before you purchase your tracker and other factors that will make a difference in how successful you use it.

Try One Before You Buy One

If you aren't ready to commit to a specific tracker, you'll want to check out Lumoid, a service that allows you to try three different trackers for one week for a flat fee.20 Another way to try a tracker is to use a mobile app for your phone. These require you to carry your phone during all activities and they cannot monitor your sleep.

However, mobile apps are lightweight and a good way to determine if you enjoy the feedback from the monitor and will use the information in a positive way.

Determine the Functions You Want to Track

Fitness trackers have many different options for tracking, including heart rate, sleep, calories and steps. Before committing to a tracker that provides more or less than you want, it's important to think through your personal goals and spending limit. I find it helpful to write out the products I'm considering, leaving room to write down the positive and negative features of the products, along with a list of functions I want it to perform.

Guard Against Data Loss

While technology has advanced, so have hackers. According to Business Insider and InformationWeek, your fitness tracker may possibly be leaking your personal information.21,22 Location information and data encryption were problems identified in 7 of the 8 different trackers tested. Data loss could lead to fake health records. Researchers called for companies to improve their Bluetooth connections and improve the security inside their apps.

This data loss was found when users wore their fitness trackers to large populated areas, such as a mall. You may reduce the potential for data loss by leaving your device at home when you are walking through the mall.

Think Sport Specific

If you're using your fitness tracker for specific sports activities, then you'll want to consider a tracker built specifically for your sport. Whether you enjoy walking, swimming, running, cycling or rowing, there's a tracker for that.23

Understand the Differences Between Steps and Activity

Trackers may be focused on counting steps or on tracking activities. Counting steps is a function of literally counting the number of steps you take each day, whether you're walking at lunch or getting up to grab water. An activity is something physical you do for a specific amount of time. For instance, going for a run, playing basketball or getting on an elliptical machine, counts as an activity.24

Good trackers can tell the difference between counting your steps or tracking your activities, while others will require to press a button to start and stop your activities. If counting steps and getting more active is the goal, then you may not need a tracker that will also track activities.

On the other hand, if you want to track your results from running over different terrain, your heart rate and calories burned, you'll need a more sophisticated device.

+ Sources and References