The Dark Side of Fitness Trackers No One Told You About

We’re dropping some serious knowledge before you drop the $$$

If you’re considering dropping a few Benjamins on a snazzy piece of wearable fitness tech, throw a spanner in the works and hold that thought. While you’re at it, rethink that health app purchase, too, because studies show that techy additions your fitness journey might just be the demise of your weight loss goals.

Fitness trackers are still all the rage and big-name companies are advertising it like water 2.0 – you just can’t live without it. But what they’re failing to tell you is that there’s a dark side no one talks about. Though you may think the more you measure, the more you’ll know what to change to lead a better and healthier life – it’s not quite so simple.

Enjoying vs. Counting

The Journal of Consumer Research published a 2016 study on the ‘unintended negative consequences of personal quantification’. The research conducted six studies all claiming that regular measurement of physical movement reduces the activity to just its numerical value and extracts any enjoyment of it. Although the experiment showed that test subjects wearing fitness trackers worked harder, the control group enjoyed the activities much more.

The study suggests that we may be stripping ourselves of other health indicators such as how we feel about ourselves, our general fitness level and agility, and instead, focus on the numbers. Does this mean we’re becoming slaves to the wrong type of healthy?

The most common reason why people fall short of their weight loss goals is that they don’t find it enjoyable. Whatever you promised yourself at the beginning – whether it be a diet change or upping your workout schedule – if it’s not enjoyable, it’s not sustainable. If you strip the fun out of fitness (i.e. focus on the numbers but not how good you feel), you may find yourself back on the couch – a place you swore you’d never go back to.

For example, some people might find comfort in counting calories and logging how much they burned in an hour-long lifting session. Others, however, find it the bane of their existence.

Is that bowl of ice cream I had 200 or 225 calories? Just eat the damn ice cream and be happy, friends.

 

Catered to You?

In a lab setting, calculating calories burned or gained requires measuring complex factors such as oxygen exchange rate and heart rate and these values change depending on an individual’s gender, muscle mass, body mass index (BMI), age, level of movement, and more.

So, whether it is the Garmin, Fitbit or the Nike Fuelband, all these trackers rely on simpler measurements to convert your lifestyle into numbers. They are not tailored to individual lifestyle choices.

Say you’re a fit gal and spent an hour strength training at the gym. You squatted your personal best and felt damn happy, too. Your heart rate may not be as high as if you were to do steady state cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but you’re still burning a significant number of calories. As you lift weights, you are increasing your lean muscle mass, which is “calorie burning powerhouses in your body”. But your tracker will only base calories burnt by measuring your heart rate (which can be off, too, if you’re sweaty or tracker isn’t worn snugly). See where we’re going with this?

Whatever data the tracker cannot obtain or doesn’t ask for, it relies on assumptions (although highly researched), but it is still not geared to understanding your body fully.

Relying on assumed and relatively generic data to lose weight can end up giving incorrect information about your fitness levels.

“[Although] most independent research that has been done so far [have] shown that most measure heart rate quite accurately…with a small error, using these trackers to estimate calories burnt and energy expenditure is probably off by a significant amount,” says Eleni Phillips, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

The number of calories you’ve burned daily is an assumption gathered from a general understanding of your base metabolic rate (BMR) relating to your height, weight, gender, and age. A 5’7” 30-year-old woman weighing 140 pounds might have a drastically different BMR compared to a woman of the same age, weight, and height; but the tracker wouldn’t necessarily know that.

“Most people wear fitness trackers in order to know how many calories they burnt, but [this] is dependent on so many factors that these devices do not take into account,” says Phillips. Effects such as your metabolic rate, digestion, genes, hormones and how your body extracts energy from those calories also affect your goals of weight loss. Weight loss and maintenance isn’t a simple science. It’s much more complex and individual.

If you’re relying on the data too heavily and making decisions based off of that, you may be doing more harm than good.

 

A Mental Strain

No one wants to be defined by their age, weight or height. It is a mental strain to constantly have to define eating habits by how many calories and macronutrients your food has.

“It’s easier when I’m getting something from the store. I can just scan the barcode and get the exact calorie count. But say I go to a friend’s house and eat a home cooked meal. How the heck am I going to track that? Ask her for the recipe and detail it on my app? It’s ridiculous,” says Sierra, a fitness tracker user.

“Calorie counting hasn’t worked for me. It makes me feel like everything has to translate into numbers and if I am even a calorie over my limit, I feel like I lost. That’s a crappy feeling when you’re trying to convince yourself to lose weight,” she continues.

Additionally, if you are trying to eat less than what you’re burning, what you eat is dependent on how much physical activity you do. This leaves you in a perpetual battle of what to eat. And if your tracker indicates that you’ve burned a significant amount of calories, you’re subconsciously giving yourself permission to overindulge and eat back all your calories. This only negates the progress you’ve made.

“Your mental and physical outlook on yourself should not be based on numbers. Steps taken towards your weight loss, maintenance or gains should also include how you feel about yourself,” says Phillips. Gained some weight? Chin up, you can still feel great about yourself.

The Take-Away

A fitness tracker can help you adopt healthier ways as part of your everyday routine, and constant reminders of step count, hours of sleep, and other aspects can help you understand your behavior. But, take it with a grain of salt.

Mark Gorelick, an assistant professor of kinesiology at San Francisco State University says, wearable technology that directly measures your heart rate and other personal data will give the most accurate information. Second comes calculators on fitness equipment such as treadmills and lastly, website and phone apps which do not have a feedback loop to adjust to personal data. We’ve researched the best fitness trackers out there and measured them for their worth so you don’t have to.

“If someone is going to use the number of calories burnt as shown on a tracker for ‘permission’ to consume more food or for other life decisions, then we have a serious problem. They may be doing more harm…I tell my clients [that the] exact number of calories burnt is absolutely not [accurate],” says Phillips.

Instead of focusing on numeric values, be aware of lifestyle and other physical changes such as your mental wellbeing; are you fitting into your old clothes? Are you more confident? Is your food intake cleaner? Can you take the stairs without feeling winded? Can you bench press 10lbs more? These are all aspects of improved fitness that’s got absolutely nothing to do with your scale. In fact, you can be heavier than you were before and still be healthier.

Fitness apps and trackers allow you to measure short-term goals that are important in building towards a sustainable healthy lifestyle. Keep in mind that fitness trackers are not geared to sustain long-term goals. Why? Because the best workout is the one you actually do. Long-term workouts are those that you can incorporate into your lifestyle.

Using fitness trackers as a basis for your healthy lifestyle has its value. They provide relatively accurate information that helps us understand our lifestyle patterns. Yet, be aware that numbers aren’t the do-or-die for fitness. Eat healthy food, enjoy your workout and have that slice of cake (and for the love of sugar, don’t ask the bakery for the calorie count, either!).

 

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