Fitness trackers have captured the public imagination with sales on the up and up. But do they deliver results, asks Lorraine Courtney.
“KEEP it up” You’re on the right track.”
For the past two weeks, I’m being encouraged and reprimanded throughout my day by a bracelet made of hi-tech plastic.
It tracks every step, monitors every heartbeat and tells me how many calories I’ve left over.
It tells me when it’s time to go to bed.
Since starting to wear it I’ve found I am more and more inclined to want to meet the activity goals each day, especially since I’ve found out that if I don’t go for my usual 5K run, I only manage around 6,000 steps — 10,000 is the recommended number.
I’ve also realised that I burn fewer calories than I’d imagined.
A regular day that includes a 5K run only requires 2,211 steps in my case. It’s a strange compulsion, but it definitely works.
Never before have I felt so utterly transparent. But now that I understand my body better, I am treating it better.
Fitness trackers, for those of you who have been living in deep space for the last while, are the latest craze in what is a burgeoning wearable technology market.
From smart watches to slick wristbands, they come in a range of styles with varying features and act like a personal trainer, forever egging you on.
Adam Lester, product and marketing manager at Harvey Norman, says that fitness trackers are one of their fastest growing product categories right now.
“With the introduction of new technologies, more people are buying these devices. Over the past two years, we have had a 500% increase on the overall fitness tracker/sports watch market.
“There is a bigger increase in sales of the more technologically advanced trackers as people want features such as heart rate monitoring and smart watch functionalities, neither of which come with the standard fitness trackers,” he says.
“We stock an extensive selection of fitness trackers, ranging from the entry level FitBit Zip Activity Tracker, €59.90, and the mid-range FitBit Charge HR, €149.90, to one of the most advanced trackers, the Garmin Forerunner 235, €358.”
My own Fitbit Surge retails for €259.
Lester says that their market for standard fitness tracker models is predominately females aged 40-plus and for higher spec watches/trackers (those that track heart rate and GPS etc) is males aged 30-plus.
Soaring obesity levels in Ireland — Irish men have the highest BMI in Europe while Irish women rank third — we’re are already driving a diabetes epidemic, a cancer epidemic, and a heart disease epidemic.
Ann Scanlon, health promotion officer at the Irish Heart Foundation, says aerobic activity is a key way to fight back.
“Aerobic activity is the best type of activity to improve your heart health and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke,” she says.
“When you are aerobically active, your body needs more oxygen and so your heart and lungs have to work harder, which helps make your heart and circulation become more efficient over time.”
But can a plastic wristband motivate us to move more?
A study from Lancaster University says there is “no empirical evidence” that devices that monitor activity and heart rate have a long- term benefit.
Around a third of people who buy a fitness tracker stop wearing them after six months, and half stop after a year.
While fitness trackers often have an immediate effect on exercise levels, the activity of the wearer tends to revert to normal after the novelty factor fades.
Another limitation is that the people buying trackers are usually already active.
“However, it’s great to see cheap affordable easy-to-use devices getting people off the couch and starting a programme,” says leading sports scientist, Professor Niall Moyna.
“Any help people can get is a positive thing. Getting people to initially change their behaviour and to maintain that is the important thing though.
"If you’re not ready to change your lifestyle, it doesn’t matter what you wear, you have to be motivated first.
“The main message is that anything is better than nothing — 10,000 steps is an unrealistic target for many people but if you can do 4,000 and sustain that then our medical costs will reduce. Doing nothing at all is what’s killing us.”
Carl Cautley, a personal trainer and owner of Health and Fitness Together, believes trackers are good for motivating people.
“They will give you information about yourself that you can use to help make improvements. They will show you are getting faster, sleeping better and how many calories you are taking in,” he says.
“The limitation are that you need to be able to understand the information and how to benefit from it.”
Just like I don’t need to change into workout gear to go for a walk, I don’t need to strap a fitness tracker to my wrist to tell me how active I’ve been on a given day.
I don’t need to optimise every breath, step, and nap with an expensive gadget, although I think it’s helping. I’m walking to cafés further away to raise my step count. And I’m trying to find ways to sleep better.
That’s what trackers do — they show you what you already knew but didn’t put into practice.
1 Fitbit Surge, €259
Fitbit has bands for everyone and the Surge is geared towards the sport fanatic.
It has optical lights to track heart beats, an accelerometer for calculating calories burned, steps and distance as well as a GPS tracker. It sends call and text notifications and has a ‘silent’ alarm.
2 Garmin Vivoactive, €277
This is a smart watch with has GPS built-in and is waterproof. You can use it for super-accurate running data and even to measure how you’re swimming.
A high-resolution colour touchscreen display stays readable in direct sunlight. You can join online challenges and connect with friends.
3 Moov Now, €85
Modern life can seem like we are continually charging various devices but the Moov Now has a watch battery that has a six-month life.
It will track general activity and has modes for cycling, running, swimming and sleeping. It’s waterproof too.
4 Microsoft Band 2, €254.99
The Band 2 is super hi-tech with 10 sensors and a microphone. Some of the sensors give direct readouts, like the constant optical heart-rate sensor, the GPS and UV sensor.
Others are used in combination to detect steps and activity, and to track workouts. It’s also a smart watch with tiles for Twitter and Facebook.
5 Swarovski’s Crystal activity tracker, €169
Most wearables look like you might be serving a parole sentence but this fashionable crystal bracelet measures steps, calories burned, distance and sleep quality.
The crystal-bejewelled band ensure that you still look pretty as you monitor yourself.
6 Sony SmartBand, €56.50
This is one of the more affordable trackers available and includes a step counter and sleep monitor.
It also vibrates with social media notifications, plays music and is ideal for the teenage user.
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