Since the introduction of the Fitbit in 2009, wearable fitness trackers have taken the country by storm. These days, it seems everyone is sporting one of these little gadgets on their wrist or clipped to a belt. People who use them love them, too. Give them a chance and they’ll talk your ear off about how many steps they’ve taken that day, how much weight they’ve lost, how their resting heart rate has improved, and on and on.
While there are plenty of worthwhile fitness trends, most come with a steep price tag. According to The Sweethome, the best fitness trackers range from $60 for a modest clip-on to $220 for a bulky band aimed at hardcore athletes. At those prices, many people who haven’t jumped on the fitness tracker bandwagon yet are wondering: Are these gizmos worth the money?
How Fitness Trackers Work
Fitness trackers have a variety of different functions, and some of them work better than others. Here’s a rundown of what fitness bands can do as well as the technology behind them:
- Count Your Steps. Pretty much every fitness tracker contains an accelerometer, a device that measures how fast something is changing its speed or direction. Using this tool, the tracker can count the number of steps you take as well as measure your movements from side to side or up and down.
- Measure Other Movements. Fancier trackers also contain various other sensors to track your movement. For instance, they can use a gyroscope, which can spin in any direction around a fixed axis, to figure out whether you’re sitting, standing, or lying down. A barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure, can calculate your altitude to determine how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed. And a tiny GPS unit can track your location, which is handy for recording your route on a long run or bike ride.
- Check Your Vital Signs. Many fitness trackers contain a heart rate monitor to measure your pulse, both during exercise and while at rest. Some can also detect your skin temperature and level of perspiration. They combine this data with your pulse rate to figure out just how hard you’re working out.
- Keep Track of Calories. Some fitness trackers use your heart rate to estimate how many calories you’ve burned during the day. A few also come with an app that lets you record how many calories you consume. That way, you can track calories consumed against calories burned to help with weight loss.
- Monitor Your Sleep. Many fitness trackers can supposedly track how well you’re sleeping. They detect motion while you’re lying down to figure out when you’re awake, lightly asleep, or in deep sleep. However, this function doesn’t work all that well. The devices often claim that you’ve slept either more or fewer hours than you really did.
- Sync With Other Devices. Fitness trackers often work with a smartphone app. These apps can track your activity and sleep over time to help you form healthy habits. Some trackers can also pair with other devices, such as a “smart” bathroom scale or a heart rate monitor.
- Send You Messages. Another way fitness trackers work with your phone is to alert you when you have new messages. They can notify you about incoming calls, texts, e-mail, and even social media posts. Also, some trackers send you messages of their own. For instance, they can send a “move alert” to let you know when you’ve been sitting still for too long. They can also send you messages of praise when you hit an activity goal. In many cases, you can use your tracker to share reports of your activity with your friends online. This can lead to friendly competition that can motivate you to work harder. A few trackers can even share health info with your doctor. Sharing your progress is a proven way to achieve your goals.
Not all trackers have all of these functions, however. In general, they fall into two main types. Basic “all-day trackers” keep track of your daily activity, such as steps taken, calories burned, and periods of activity and sleep. Fancier “training trackers” do all this and also add more features for hard-core athletes. They track your heart rate and breathing, the miles you’ve logged, your speed, and even your altitude – a nice bit of info for cyclists and skiers. Some of them even provide music to go with your workout.
Benefits of Fitness Trackers
Why do people love their fitness trackers so much? The main benefit, most of them will tell you, is that wearing the tracker motivates them to be more active. For many people, exercise is more rewarding when they can see numbers in black and white telling them how well they’re doing. They get more excited about hitting a specific target, like 10,000 steps per day, than about the vague goal of being healthier.
Fitness trackers are designed to encourage this kind of thinking. They send messages to cheer you on when you meet a goal, giving you an ego boost. Plus, you can share the messages with your friends to let them know how active you’re being. For many people, this brings out their competitive instinct.
Studies on Fitness Trackers
Still, it’s not clear how good a job fitness trackers do of making people more active. Studies on the subject show mixed results.
For instance, a 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Medicine (AJPM) gave fitness trackers to one group of overweight women and pedometers to another group. The women who used the trackers increased their levels of exercise by about 38 minutes per week. That’s far less than the goal of 10,000 steps per day they were aiming for, but it’s more than twice what they were getting before. The control group didn’t increase its exercise levels at all.
However, other studies were less successful. A 2016 meta-study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found no clear evidence that fitness trackers encourage kids or adolescents to be more active. And a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that obese people who wore fitness trackers actually lost less weight over two years than those who tracked diet and activity on their own.
Other Benefits of Fitness Trackers
Fitness trackers can help you in other ways, too. For instance, you can use them to:
- Understand Your Overall Health. Using a fitness tracker can help you figure out if you’re getting enough steps every day to be healthy. You can use it to see if you’re getting enough sleep or to measure your resting heart rate.
- Measure Progress Toward Goals. If any of these numbers isn’t what you’d like it to be, you can take steps to improve it – and the fitness tracker can help you see how the numbers change over time. This can help you figure out which strategies work or don’t work for you.
- Train More Effectively. If you’re trying to lose weight, a fitness tracker can show you when your heart rate is in the ideal zone for exercise. This can help you get the most benefit out of your workouts. If you’re a serious athlete, a fitness tracker can track your speed and distance traveled, so you can see how well your training regimen is working. If you’re just starting out, try a proven home workout plan.
Drawbacks of Fitness Trackers
Even if the benefits of a fitness tracker are uncertain, they’d clearly be worth it if the devices had no downside. But unfortunately, that’s not true. These gadgets have several drawbacks, including:
- Cost. A good fitness tracker can cost anywhere from $50 to $250. It’s possible to buy one for less, but most of the cheaper ones aren’t very good. The more features you want, the more you should expect to spend. For instance, inexpensive fitness trackers usually don’t have a built-in display, so you have to use your smartphone to check your results. Features such as GPS and a heart-rate monitor also cost extra. Experts at PC Magazine say serious athletes probably need to spend at least $150 for a fitness tracker that meets their needs.
- Inaccurate Results. In 2015, the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity published a meta-study looking into the accuracy of fitness trackers. It found that these devices do a good job of tracking steps, but they’re not so great at measuring other things. They tend to underestimate the distance you’ve traveled when you’re going fast, and they overestimate when you’re moving slowly. Their measurements of overall activity level are iffy. They overestimate total sleep time, and their figures for the number of calories burned can be either high or low. So if you rely on one of these devices as your only guide, you could end up with a skewed view of your overall fitness.
- Loss of Interest. Many people who buy fitness devices lose interest in them after a while. A market study by Endeavor Partners found that about one in three users stops wearing the device within six months of buying it. And according to Rock Health, only half of all registered Fitbit users were still active as of the first quarter of 2015. Of course, the fact that many people abandon their fitness trackers doesn’t prove that you will. Still, it should be enough to make you stop and think carefully about whether you’re likely to stick with the device. If you don’t, that’s $50 to $250 down the drain.
- Obsession with Numbers. A final problem with fitness trackers is that they can lead you to focus too much on numbers and not enough on how exercise makes you feel. You rely on the device to tell you whether you’re healthy or not, rather than listening to your body. You can even lose your motivation whenever the tracker isn’t with you. If you forget your tracker one day, you could decide it isn’t worth trying to be active, because those extra steps won’t get counted. You no longer feel motivated to walk because you enjoy it; it’s just something you do to meet your daily quota.
Alternatives to Fitness Trackers
A fitness tracker isn’t the only tool you can use to monitor your exercise. There are other options that cost less and can do some, though not all, of what a fitness tracker does. Depending on what you want to measure, one of these cheaper tools could serve you just as well or better.
Mobile Health Apps
There are a variety of fitness apps available for your smartphone that can do many of the same things fitness trackers do – and even some things they can’t. For instance, these apps can:
- Count Your Steps. All new iPhones come with a Health app that tracks your step count automatically if you don’t turn it off. For Android users, the free apps Google Fit and Pedometer do the same thing. A 2015 JAMA study found that fitness apps do a better job than wearable devices of counting steps. When researchers watched people working out on a treadmill and counted their steps, their numbers were pretty close to the numbers recorded by the apps. The wearable trackers tended to be off by a larger amount – as much as 20% in one case.
- Log Other Activities. Some apps can track several different activities. For instance, Google Fit and Cyclemeter for iOS can count how many miles you run, walk, or cycle. They keep a log of statistics such as the route you took, your speed, and the number of stops. All this data lets you see how you’re improving over time.
- Track Your Behavior. You can use fitness apps such as My Fitness Pal (free for Android or iOS) to record your calorie intake, your weight, and your daily workouts. However, you have to enter this information by hand; the app can’t detect when you’re eating a doughnut. This means you can only get an accurate count with the device if you’re honest.
- Coach You Through a Workout. If you work out at a gym, the free Jefit Workout app for Android or iOS can help you create a weight-lifting routine and keep track of sets, reps, and amount lifted. If you prefer to work out at home, the Johnson & Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout app can guide you through a complete workout that takes only seven minutes and requires no equipment except a chair. The app adjusts the difficulty of the workout based on your fitness level.
- Get You Moving with Music. Music apps, such as FIT Radio and Spotify, can automatically select music to fit the pace of your workout. These apps are free for iOS and Android, but you can pay for extra features, such as exclusive playlists and no commercials.
- Set Up a Competition. Some apps can tap into your competitive side just like fitness trackers do. For example, the free iOS or Android app Strava publishes route and speed details for everyone who uses it so that you can compete against everyone else on the app. You can also bet real money on yourself with Pact, formerly called GymPact. You promise to work out a specific number of days, and if you meet that goal, you win money from other users who didn’t meet theirs.
Fitness apps have several advantages over wearable fitness trackers. For one thing, most of them cost $5 or less; many are completely free. Also, you don’t need to carry a separate device. If you have your phone with you all the time anyway, having your fitness app built into it means you can’t forget it.
However, these apps can’t do everything a fitness tracker can do. For instance, they can’t check your heart rate while you work out or measure the quality of your sleep. Also, you have to carry your phone to use them. This can be awkward for some sports, such as basketball, and it’s impossible for swimming unless you have a more expensive waterproof device.
As noted above, the job fitness trackers do best is counting your steps – but they’re not the only tool that can do it. For $30 or less, you can get a simple pedometer that does a better job of counting steps than most fitness bands. In the 2015 JAMA study, a pedometer counted steps more accurately than either a wearable device or a smartphone app.
Although pedometers are great at counting steps, they can’t do anything else. You can’t use a pedometer to measure your heart rate, count calories burned, or monitor your sleep. Even more importantly, you can’t use it to share your results with your friends, which is what keeps a lot of users motivated.
That may explain why the 2015 AJPM study found women who used pedometers didn’t increase their steps per day the way the women with fitness trackers did. Even the JAMA study, which found pedometers were highly effective, noted that not many people used them. The article concluded that smartphone apps and fitness trackers, though less accurate, could do a better job of getting people to move more.
Heart Rate Monitors
Another useful tool for tracking your fitness is a dedicated heart rate monitor. Prices for these range from $29 to $200, but you don’t have to pay top dollar for a good one. The best-rated chest-strap models cost around $70, and there are wrist-mounted models that do a good job for as little as $30.
In addition to costing less than a fitness tracker, they tend to be more accurate. Testers at Consumer Reports found that a monitor strapped to your chest measures your heart rate more precisely than the pulse sensors in a fitness wristband. They recommend that if you want a fitness tracker to measure your heart rate, you’re better off with one that syncs to a chest-mounted heart monitor, rather than one that does it all on its own.
How to Decide
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to keep track of your health without wearing a fitness tracker. But that doesn’t mean there’s no good reason to get one. If a wearable device truly motivates you to move more or helps you train harder, it could be a good investment. The question is whether you’ll get enough benefit to outweigh the cost.
Questions to Ask
To decide if a fitness tracker is right for you, ask yourself these questions:
- What Do You Want to Know? If all you want to do is count your steps, you can do that better with a simple pedometer – or an app that costs nothing at all. But if you want to track all aspects of your health – activity, sleep, heart rate, and so on – then a fitness tracker is the only tool that can do it all.
- How Do You Work Out? If your main sport is walking, running, or cycling, you’re probably better off trying a smartphone app first. With many fitness trackers, you need to carry your phone anyway to use all the features, so you might as well see if an app alone can do the job. But if you play a sport that makes it hard to carry a phone, a wearable is a better bet. And if swimming is your main sport, you’ll need to make sure you choose one of the few fitness bands that work in the pool.
- Do You Carry Your Phone Everywhere? If you do, then an app could be a better bet than a basic fitness tracker. It’s cheaper, and it doesn’t require you to carry an extra device. Even if you want the extra features of a fitness tracker, you can get by with a cheaper one that pairs with your phone to give you your results. But if you don’t carry a phone all the time, you’ll need to pay more for a high-end tracker that contains its own display.
- How Much Can You Spend? There’s not much point in buying a fitness tracker if you can’t afford a good one. So if you don’t have at least $60 to spare, go for a fitness app instead. It’ll give you the most bang for your buck.
- What Drives You? This is the big question. If you’re competitive, a fitness tracker’s social functions will be a big help for you. Seeing how your friends are doing and trying to outdo them could inspire you to move more when nothing else does. But if all you need to inspire you is a goal to work toward, an app is just as good for tracking your progress.
Try Before You Buy
If you think a fitness tracker sounds useful, but you’re just not sure you’ll get your money’s worth out of it, there’s a way to try it before you take the plunge. Lumoid is a service that lets you lease up to three devices for a week for $35. At the end of the week, if you decide to buy one of them, you can apply $25 of that $35 toward your purchase. And if you don’t, at least you’ve spent less than you would have to buy a device you won’t actually use.
An even cheaper option is to try an app first. That gives you a low-cost way to try out some of the features of a fitness tracker and see how you like them.
If you find these features don’t help you at all, you know there’s no point in wasting money on a full-blown fitness tracker. If you like them, but you don’t like having to carry your phone everywhere, you can buy a tracker knowing that you’ll get good value out of it. And if the app works fine for you, then you can just stick with it and save some money.
The real bottom line is whether a fitness tracker will improve your health. Will you work out more when you’re wearing it? Will you eat better or sleep better at night? If a tracker can motivate you to make these positive changes when no other tool can, it’s a good buy.
But maybe you don’t need a fitness tracker to motivate you. Perhaps you can get that same kick in the pants from a free fitness app. You might even find that a low-tech method like working out with a friend is just as effective. Or maybe you implement a S.M.A.R.T. goal system. In that case, there’s no need to spend the money on a fancy gadget.
If you decide to splurge on one of these devices, make sure you get real value out of it. Wear it every day so you can get an accurate picture of how active you are. Be truthful when entering details like your height, weight, and daily diet.
And finally, focus on long-term trends, not each day’s numbers. Instead of worrying about whether you can make it to 10,000 steps today, look at whether you’re getting more exercise overall than you did a few weeks or months ago. If you did, that’s something to celebrate.
Do you use a fitness tracker? If you do, would you say it was a good investment?