Should You Use an Activity Tracker?

By Lou Schuler |

Wearable devices can count steps, measure heart rate, and monitor sleep. But that doesn’t mean you should let them.

SilverSneakers Activity Trackers

You’re out to lunch with some friends, and they begin comparing their daily steps, as measured by a Fitbit. Or you’re at work and a coworker abruptly breaks off a conversation to practice the breathing exercises her Apple Watch just told her it’s time to do. Or you’re at the gym and feel like you’re the only one who isn’t plugged into something. With almost everyone wearing headphones and constantly checking their smartphones, you don’t know if they’re listening to music, monitoring their workouts, or making dinner reservations.

Whatever they’re doing, you feel like you’re missing out. There must be a benefit to all this, right? Why else would so many people have outsourced their health and fitness to electronic devices?

The authors of Unplugged, a new book that’s highly skeptical of our emerging reliance on technology, say it’s important to understand what we lose when we’re constantly plugged in. “Learning to feel is our greatest asset,” says Brian MacKenzie, founder of Power Speed Endurance, a veteran endurance athlete and performance specialist, and one of the book’s three coauthors. “If you’ve been active your whole life, I don’t think you need something to tell you what healthy is and what it isn’t. We’re wired to understand it ourselves.”

For those who haven’t been active but want to be, fitness trackers offer some benefits, along with some perils, especially for seniors.

Activity Tracker Basics, Benefits, and Drawbacks

Researchers have known for a long time that people who stay active are healthier than those who don’t. Whether it’s the Department of Health and Human Services saying we should get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise almost every day, the Harvard Alumni Study recommending that you burn 2,000 to 3,000 calories per week with exercise to help prevent a heart attack, or the current idea that we need to take 10,000 steps per day, everyone is saying pretty much the same thing.

Activity trackers, starting with the original Fitbit in 2009, make it possible for you to take those goals from aspirational to operational. You can count steps, measure your heart rate, estimate your calorie expenditure, and monitor the quality of your sleep. Combined with online apps, you can also track your food, participate in communities, and get a big-picture view of how all these factors add up.

A recent Brandeis University study notes that an estimated 20 percent of Americans own a tracker, with increasing popularity among older adults. Those who are the least active get the most benefits. But there are some drawbacks. For example:

  • About half the people who own trackers don’t use them.
  • A tracker can be discouraging to those who fall behind on their fitness goals since it constantly reminds them of what they aren’t doing.
  • For older adults with a slower walking pace, a tracker can be less accurate, either by undercounting the number of steps or underestimating the intensity of a workout.
  • Most people who buy and use a tracker will set a goal of 10,000 steps per day, but 5,000 to 7,000 might be a more reasonable target for someone who’s older and has a lifetime of wear and tear to account for.
  • Steps alone aren’t the best measure of fitness. A well-rounded fitness routine includes strength and balance training in addition to cardio exercise, and research shows you can improve your aerobic fitness by taking fewer steps at a faster pace.

The Best Way to Track Your Progress

MacKenzie says you probably own the two best trackers: a mirror and a digital scale. “Look at yourself, understand what you look like, and notice changes,” he says. “Are they positive changes for you, or are they negative changes?”

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He’s less enthusiastic about the scale, preferring to use it once per week at most. (To get an idea of your healthiest weight, it’s smart to discuss it with your doctor. For some people, a healthy weight may mean losing a few pounds. For others, it may mean maintaining current weight or even gaining a few pounds by adding lean muscle.)

As for tracking workouts, MacKenzie says step-counting technology “is a great thing to start with, but it’s not something you should be long-term on. Make the changes, create a habit. But once the habit is created, you should be able to do that without a fitness tracker.”

How? He offers three simple suggestions:

1. When you see changes in the mirror or on the scale, ask yourself what happened. Did you gain weight because you’re less active? Do you look better in the mirror because of something you changed in your workouts?

2. Don’t let technology overrule your body’s own signals. If you feel that you got a great workout, you did. If you feel that you got a good night’s sleep, you did.

3. Tune in, no matter how many people around you are tuned out. Especially when you’re outdoors, take off the headphones, and pay attention to your body’s signals: your breath, your footsteps, your muscles and how they feel. Try it with a moving meditation walking workout.

MacKenzie emphasizes that he’s not against trackers per se, especially if investing in a device and monitoring your progress motivates you. “But remember that technology isn’t the answer,” he says. “You’re the answer.”

To tune into your fitness even more—and shore up your weak spots—try these simple at-home tests.

Monthly Walking Schedule