Does Fitness Technology Equal Fitness Sucess?

heart-rate-monitorI get asked all the time about what I think of high tech gadgets, exercise monitors, phone apps and more. While I think that all of these tools can create support and accountability for users, I always still wonder, does this translate into improved success? I’m not so sure they do. Some of the fittest people I know use no fitness tracking at all, while some of the least fit people I know use every tech gadget available. It all depends on the individual, and how they use the technology. Is the data used to create positive change, or just to have data?

Fitness technology really began in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when cardio equipment came with computer programs for workout variety and to give feedback about exercise outcomes, like calories burned. While all these shiny lights are entertaining, (Look! Something shiny!) , the claim that they could estimate energy expended is way over blown. Unless the treadmill knows your height, weight, sex, body composition and age, there’s no way any of these machines can be accurate. Often, they greatly over estimate calories burned. Whether it’s purposeful or not, manufacturers certainly benefit from this error. We are all much more likely to buy a piece of equipment that burns more calories than any other, right? Unfortunately, many people take these claims to be so accurate, that they then over estimate how much they can eat on the other end. Weight loss successes gone.

Next on the tech picture came heart rate monitors. Very accurate for heart rate, and particularly great for endurance athletes who train according to heart rate parameters. But target heart rates are also dependent on age, sex, fitness level and genetics to some extent, so for non-endurance athletes, less meaning. Heart rate monitors morphed into what we now see today, wearable devices that record everything from sleep patterns to calories burned, to distance traveled, to calories taken in. But, can you rely on these devices for accurate info? Sometimes…..

Research has shown that anytime fitness peeps have external feedback on their workouts and goal achievements, it does produce good accountability and hopefully, better results. The research has only been on short term success, so long term outcomes have not yet been studied. So, Yes, external feedback can be very motivating… but remember, junk in, junk out. Studies done on fitness gadgets such as the “fit bit” show they are very accurate except for stop and go activities like HIIT, or multi-directional rapid movements. They often underestimate energy expended (which is better than overestimating like the old cardio machines). Other problems- devices like the Nike band that uses “Nike Fuel Points” to assess energy expended. What’s a “Nike Fuel Point”? Who the heck knows? It’s not something we all understand and relate to. Nike is just trying to be super exclusive, and it doesn’t work for me. Skip the Nike Fuel Band.

One thing I do love about many of these fitness trackers is the ability to track sleep patterns. Given how important sleep is for weight loss, exercise energy and general good health, seeing your sleep patterns is important information. But, like anything, you need to then act on the info. Just having the info, and not creating any changes to go with it… well….you’re fooling yourself. This is why high tech gadgets fail to result in success. You still have to want to change. Overall, if wearing a black rubber band around your wrist or on your belt line keeps you on track – a visual remembrance of the commitment you have made to yourself- go for it.

MyFitnessPalReal problems begin when people use these devices to record foods eaten and calories taken in. Again, junk in, junk out. If you enter into the program 1 serving of almonds (10 to 15 almonds) when in reality you ate a huge handful…junk in. Unless you are 100% accurate with your portions (and who is?) you don’t have accuracy. And, what about scales that assess body fat percentages? Highly inaccurate. A big waste of your money. Assessing body fat versus lean tissue is a complex process which requires very expensive equipment to do so, and a $50 scale won’t do it.

I like to keep things simple personally. I am bombarded with so much technology that often my head is spinning. I’m a big fan of the basic pedometer. Pedometers are all about increasing overall daily movement, where we expend most of our calories anyway. Research has shown that people who take 10,000 steps/day are much fitter and leaner than those who take less than 4000. Less than 4000 steps per day means you have a sedentary life. Not good for overall health! Pedometers can be very inaccurate too, however. Make sure your pedometer is a really good one- not one of the pedometers with the little ball inside that ticks as you walk. And, don’t rely on a pedometer for calories expended. It can’t possibly be accurate for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Pedometers can also be inaccurate for distance walked, unless you have set your stride length properly. Take time to do this if distance traveled is important to you.

So, use the technology as data for making positive changes. Then, make the changes. After all, getting healthier is all about change.