Fitness Trackers are Actually Useful

With a wide range of gadgets (and an ever-increasing number of features) launching just ahead of the holidays, they’ll be on many Christmas lists this year. But what does the most recent research say regarding their effectiveness?

Trackers are in vogue these days.

The market is changing rapidly at the moment. Fitbit and Garmin have long dominated the sector. But now, Apple watches (used by 43% of people owning a wearable tracker) are more popular than Fitbit (35%). Australians prefer Apple watches to Fitbits (35 percent vs 35 percent), Samsung watches to Garmin’s (16 percent vs 13%), and apple phones over Android phones.

Fitness trackers have mostly been used by younger people so far: one in four Australians aged 20–40 use one, compared to just one in ten individuals over the age of 60. However, manufacturers are on a mission to change this, introducing features that allow consumers to keep track of more than simply their fitness activity.

For example, many recent wearable devices from all of the big companies claim to measure a variety of medical data, such as blood pressure, body fat levels, the amount of oxygen in your blood, heart activity, and even whether you’ve fallen (with a function that allows you to call for assistance).

Wearables understand the fundamentals.

The accuracy of wearable fitness trackers for measures associated with physical activity, such as step counts, heart rate, and calories burned, has been examined in numerous studies. Step counts are generally very accurate, while heart rate and calories burned are somewhat reliable.

When people use two different activity trackers at the same time, the number of steps taken, minutes of exercise completed, and calories burned does not always match 100 percent, yet they are linked. When one rises, so does the other. This implies that in most circumstances, they’re capturing comparable information – albeit with a little variation in sensitivity.

Sleep monitoring is a little less clear. Wearables are quite capable of detecting when you go to bed, wake up, and sleep in general. However, estimates for more technical metrics such as “phases” of sleep – such as REM sleep – do not conform with medical-grade measurements taken by polysomnography.

Wearables may sometimes take things a step further

According to a 2019 Apple-sponsored research published in the New England Medical Journal, 419,297 individuals who did not have known atrial fibrillation were observed wearing an Apple Watch. During the study, 2,161 of them got an irregular pulse notification, with 84% being subsequently identified as having atrial fibrillation (an irregular and rapid heartbeat). This is a significant health risk that necessitates therapy to avoid stroke.

The potential to notify customers of an unknown cardiac condition appears quite useful. Some individuals, on the other hand, have expressed concern that the Apple Watch might miss undiagnosed atrial fibrillation cases, emphasizing the need for consumers not to rely on wearable measurements in medical settings.

A study published in September back up the Apple watch’s electrocardiogram function’s ability to identify critical cardiac problems. A comparable study is currently being conducted on Fitbit’s electrocardiogram function, but results have not yet been released.

Making a more sophisticated tracker

Scientists are also looking into developing wrist-worn gadgets that may detect falls using accelerometer technology, which is the same underlying technology employed by wearables. The technology is there, but it’s unclear at this stage whether the promising lab findings will translate to commercial wearables’ accuracy.

The Samsung Watch Series 4, on the other hand, is advertised for blood pressure and body composition (such as fat mass, muscle mass, and bone mass). Bioelectric impedance analysis is used to assess body composition. When the user contacts the watch with their other hand, a faint electrical signal travels from the body to the device. Users provide algorithms that calculate bodily composition and supply this data.

There’s currently no evidence in the scientific literature to confirm the accuracy of these measurements, so we’d advise taking them with a grain of salt. Then again, only recently did electrocardiogram measures from wearables come under fire for being unreliable; today, they’ve been proven accurate.

According to the statistics, your efforts will be rewarded

So, what exactly is the deal with accuracy? Do wearable activity trackers make a difference in people’s lives? Hundreds of studies have used wearable activity trackers to try to boost physical activity among various groups of individuals. Meta-analyses (which pool the findings of many studies) have shown that wearables may help people become more active and lose weight.

The researchers found that participants took around 2,100 extra steps per day after beginning to use a wearable activity tracker. Other meta-analyses have suggested weight loss of approximately 1 to 1.5 kg, on average, over the course of the trials (with the duration varying from study to study).

When it comes to long-term step counting, several research have revealed that the benefits, albeit diminished, are still there up to four years later. Aside from that, wearable users tend to be happy with their devices. So if you get one as a present this holiday season, bear in mind it may help you achieve your New Year’s fitness objectives.