Many of us already own an activity tracker and use it to ‘get our steps’, see how many active minutes we have achieved, and check in on our heart rate during exercise. As more and more features are added to the latest trackers – which are becoming more and more expensive – it is worth taking a moment to consider the usefulness of these devices to our workout goals.
Are fitness apps effective?
Many of the leading brands have developed fitness apps that complement their products. For a monthly subscription fee, you can access online coaching videos that cover a range of different class styles, from HIIT to yoga.
Compared to a gym membership or going to a physical class, these apps are of great value as they typically cost less than a tenner a month.
Some people find this to be incredibly motivating. They like the style of the classes and the option to easily scroll through an app, rather than searching for free videos online. Additionally, the small monthly fee helps to prompt them to work out.
If this sounds like you, then you might be interested to know that having the latest activity tracker will not enhance your experience of the platform, so there is no need to trade up or go for the best model to access online coaching.
Are activity trackers accurate?
Activity trackers are not entirely accurate, although they offer a good gauge of your workout. Generally speaking, this should not matter too much as under- or over-estimating a few hundred steps will not affect your progress.
However, if you train to hit heart rate targets then their margin of error can become a health hazard. If you are training at your safe maximum heart rate and your activity tracker underestimates your heart rate, you may push yourself believing that you have more to give. This will overexert your body and could be very bad for you.
Are calorie counts accurate?
Estimated calorie burn is another area where things can go wrong. These calculations are done using generalized rules about calorie burning that, scientifically speaking, are not robust enough to give you an accurate result. In fact, short of entering into a laboratory facility for a few weeks, there is no way to know your true metabolic rate!
Having an activity tracker tell you that you have burned X number of calories when perhaps you have burned 10-20% fewer, should not cause a problem if you only use this information to compare how energy-intense your day was. However, if you eat to your claimed calorie burn then you could end up gaining weight.
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New models of the most popular activity tracker brands have introduced features such as ECG scans, sleep tracking, blood oxygen saturation tracking, and stress management scoring.
There is even a promise of blood glucose monitoring coming soon. Are these worth the price of buying a new gadget or are the classic features of the older models (steps, heart rate, and active minutes) everything you need?
The answer depends on your individual needs, but we have noticed that these new features are more focused on general health and wellness, rather than supporting you during exercise. The latest models of these devices do not offer anything that will change your approach to fitness.
In fact, we would caution against being taken in by the bells and whistles of the new features.
For example, while an ECG feature will monitor your heart rate and potentially spot an abnormality that could lead to a heart attack, blood clots, stroke, and other heart conditions and could therefore be life-saving; you need to balance this against your risk profile. If you are an active person under the age of 50, your chance of getting a heart condition is very low.
Is it worth trading in?
Activity trackers can be a useful way to gain insight into exercise performance, although the data should be taken with a pinch of salt and only used to reflect on a session, never to dictate one.
The classic features of activity trackers are enough to support this, so there is no need to pay out for the latest one.
The newer features are more focused on overall wellbeing, which may sound good (who does not want to be well?) but might not end up being very useful. If you are someone who eats sensibly and exercises regularly, it is unlikely that having this data will benefit you because you were unlikely to be at risk of health complications in the first place.
On the other hand, having the facts about how your body is functioning could be a good way to spur someone into making lifestyle changes. If you have a parent or a partner to who you think this could apply, then a fancy activity tracker could make for a good gift…