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FITNESS TRACKERS: CAN THEY IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH?

Innocensia Kambewe 21 Sep 2022
FITNESS TRACKERS: CAN THEY IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH?

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Fitness trackers are wristbands that monitor activity throughout the day. They can be worn 24/7 and use an accelerometer to measure how much movement is made. Some also have a heart rate monitor and GPS. Some even count calories.

The data received can be synced with a smartphone app or computer to view the progress made over time. Goals, such as walking 10,000 steps per day, can be set and notifications can be received on the progress of the goal.

Fitness trackers have been around for several years, but they have become more popular in recent years thanks to improvements in technology, better battery life and more affordable prices. The Apple Watch has also contributed to the growth of fitness tracking by making it easier for users to access their data on their wrists instead of having to pull out their phones all the time(1).

There are two main ways that fitness trackers monitor your activity:

  • Accelerometers (1) - Accelerometers are sensors that detect motion in three dimensions. When walking or running they register the movement as a series of steps. When sleeping, they detect and monitor your sleep pattern. They also detect lying down or sitting still and can even tell if the user is snoring! Accelerometers are found in most smartwatches and activity trackers, as well as phones and other devices such as tablets.
  • Gyroscopes (2) - Gyroscopes measure rotation around an axis - basically how fast something is spinning around its own axis (think about how a bicycle wheel turns). They are used in smartwatches to measure wrist movements when doing things like checking notifications or typing text messages on the phone's touchscreen keyboard.

Types of fitness tracker

There are three main types of fitness trackers commonly available. These are activity trackers, smartwatches, and fitness bands. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks depending on the budget available and how it is to be used.

The fitness tracker market has exploded over the last few years with different trackers and smartwatches that have activity tracking capabilities..

  • Activity trackers measure activity level throughout the day by counting steps taken, calories burned, distance covered and floors climbed. Some activity trackers also measure sleep quality to help improve rest patterns (3).
  • Smartwatches come with many features such as calendars, alarms, music control, and more. They usually have a display screen that shows notifications from a phone or a tablet when worn on the wrist so there is no need to take them out of the pocket or bag to see what is going on (4).
  • Fitness bands are similar to smartwatches with many added features but they do not have a display screen like smartwatches do, so they are often cheaper than smartwatches. In addition to fitness tracking, many fitness bands also include heart rate monitoring in the device. This is helpful for keeping track of your heart rate at all times during the day and seeing how it correlates with exercise and rest periods (5).

Different fitness trackers can be worn in different ways for example, wearing on your wrist versus clipping on your clothes, belt or shoes. Each type is used for different purpose and offers different benefits.

  • Wrist-based fitness trackers are great for counting steps and measuring distance traveled. They can also monitor some aspects of heart rate and sleep, but not as accurately as chest strap monitors or other dedicated devices (6).
  • Clip-on fitness trackers can be worn anywhere on your body (except in the shower) and can measure heart rate, pace and distance traveled. They also provide more accurate measurements than wrist-based trackers because they do not have to rely on accelerometers to calculate movement patterns (7).

Advantages:

  • It encourages a higher activity level throughout the day by counting steps taken and stairs climbed (8).
  • It tracks calories burned so that it is  known how much energy is being expended through exercise or physical activity during the day (or even while sleeping).
  • It monitors the heart rate so that a person knows whether or not to slow down or speed up during exercise sessions to avoid overexertion (which could lead to injury) (8).

All that information can help in reaching fitness goals by giving concrete data about the activity levels.

Disadvantages:

  • The biggest disadvantage of using a fitness tracker is that it does not train the user to become aware of their own body and its needs (9).

Fitness trackers often come with built-in reminders to move, but these are usually based on an average person's stride length and thus do not take into account whether or not the user is actually moving enough to improve their health. The same goes for measuring heart rate: if resting heart rate is high, then it might indicate that the body needs less exercise than it actually does.

  • Noisy notifications (Getting a notification on the phone every time the heart rate spikes up can be a distraction when trying to focus)
  • Battery life (Some fitness trackers have very short battery life, which means that the user will need to remember to charge them everyday)
  • Integration (4) (Fitness trackers are meant to be worn all the time, but not everyone wants to have it on constantly)

Can they improve your health?

Fitness trackers can be a great way to keep track of your health and fitness. But they are not a solution to your health problems. The data is not always accurate as it is not personalized to each and every one of its users (9).

It's been shown that fitness trackers are not very effective at measuring the heart rate. This is usually because they are either worn too loosely or too tightly (10).

However, there are still ways they can help improve health such as:

  • Fitness trackers can help in setting goals and staying motivated

Fitness trackers can help with providing motivation to move again after a break from exercise (or to start exercising) because they provide instant feedback on how close the user is to reaching those goals. It also enables the user to share their progress with their friends via fitness apps and/or social media sites, then it is easy for them to support each other in their efforts to reach their goals, which makes it even easier to stay motivated (5)!

  • Fitness trackers can help keep track of progress.

In conclusion fitness trackers can only offer a hand when it comes to improving your health. The rest of the work will have to be done by you.

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About the Author:

Innocensia is a public health specialist, medical writer and researcher based in South Africa. One of her greatest passions is helping others gain more knowledge on health and medical issues in the world. This is why she spends a lot of her time writing public health and medical articles to increase health awareness.

References:

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  • Casson AJ, Galvez AV, Jarchi D. Gyroscope vs. accelerometer measurements of motion from wrist PPG during physical exercise. ICT Express. 2016 Dec 1;2(4):175-9.
  • Evenson KR, Goto MM, Furberg RD. Systematic review of the validity and reliability of consumer-wearable activity trackers. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2015 Dec;12(1):1-22.
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  • Cadmus-Bertram L. Using fitness trackers in clinical research: what nurse practitioners need to know. The journal for nurse practitioners. 2017 Jan 1;13(1):34-40.
  • Brickwood KJ, Watson G, O'Brien J, Williams AD. Consumer-based wearable activity trackers increase physical activity participation: systematic review and meta-analysis. JMIR mHealth and uHealth. 2019 Apr 12;7(4):e11819.
  • Yang R, Shin E, Newman MW, Ackerman MS. When fitness trackers don't'fit' end-user difficulties in the assessment of personal tracking device accuracy. InProceedings of the 2015 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing 2015 Sep 7 (pp. 623-634).
  • Hernandez J, McDuff D, Picard RW. Biowatch: estimation of heart and breathing rates from wrist motions. In2015 9th International Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare (PervasiveHealth) 2015 May 20 (pp. 169-176). IEEE.
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