According to the American Council on Exercise, “An estimated 19 million devices were in use in 2014, and that number is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. In fact, a recent report by Juniper Research predicts that the use of activity trackers—also called fitness wearables—will triple by 2018.”
That is a lot of trackers and users, in turn, getting their 10,000 steps a day towards better health and wellness… or not.
As a fitness instructor, I have a love/hate relationship with wearable trackers. Some people, mostly beginners, get motivated when they see the number of steps, the calories burned (still not very precise on most trackers), and stairs completed. Others get obsessed with reaching their 10,000 steps/day (no matter what) and walk in place in their living room before going to bed to reach their goal and post their numbers on social media. If this describes you, and you have obsessive compulsive tendencies, the trackers might put you over the edge. On the other hand, if you have “unmotivated” tendencies, the trackers might be the kick in the rear you need to get moving. But can you trust your tracker enough to let it guide your fitness endeavors?
Here is why your activity tracker might be keeping you un-fit.
1. Reporting Precision Problems
It is currently still difficult to keep track of the “quality” of the movement users are tracking. One of my clients, Mr. J., sees his wearable go through the roof when he plays the piano. We can hammer the keys with energy and a great deal of passion but it does not seem fair to compare playing the piano with doing squats, jumps or burpees. For more information on trackers’ accuracy, read this ACE article. Don’t get me wrong. It is great that people walk and get more activity in their lives. As a society, we have to overcome the diabetes, heart disease, and obesity that are slowly killing us, and activity is part of the solution. But wearable technology is not yet infallible, and we still need to keep in mind the components of fitness, which are: cardiorespiratory endurance, muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility, and body composition. Are you and your tracker taking into account all the facets of fitness?
2. It's easy to plateau
For people who want to get moving and collect data proving their accomplishments, a plateau problem arises when users keep doing the same thing, and keep getting the same data. At this level, same data = same results. The newness is gone. And people will get frustrated because the body, doing what it does so well, will have adapted to this 10,000 steps/day mode and will no longer be challenged. Our human bodies adapt pretty fast to new physical demands and that is why we talk so much about the importance of “muscle confusion” or “variety” in fitness programs today. One of my clients, Mrs. M., got started and kept adding different activities to her walking program. She keeps getting fitter because she keeps pushing her limits and does not consider 10,000 steps her only daily goal.
3. You're technology challenged
For non-exercisers who enjoy technology, fitness technology might just be what they need to get moving. For them the technology is instinctive and already part of their world so they barely need to “learn” anything new. If a client of mine is not into technology, an activity tracker might be one more thing to bother with and intimidate, bringing only frustration and adding another obstacle, one more excuse, to avoid exercise. This only brings a feeling of failure that could easily have been avoided. To these people, I always say: “Know and respect yourself. Set yourself up for success and not for failure. Find what works for YOU.”
Success Is In The Eye Of The Habit Maker!
Q: So how can activity trackers help users in the long run?
A: If the devices are used to help create a jumping off point for a new habit.
In the process of adopting technology, the tracker hopefully will make the user more aware of his/her movement behavior (or the lack thereof) and will have been used long enough to help establish a new daily habit. For more information on the anatomy of habits, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. You will learn about what Duhigg calls the habit loop, made up of cue, routine, and reward.
Cue: activity tracker shows 7,000 steps;
Routine, get up and walk;
Reward, I can post that I hit my 10,000 steps again today.
Once this habit is established and users see and feel the benefits of more movement, chances are they will be able to continue and implement this new healthy way of living in other ways. They will have created an activity habit. That is when a good trainer is key. He or she can propose new activities and exercises that will challenge the client to continue bringing fitness improvements. From an activity habit, the user will transfer to an exercise habit. The rewards becoming more intrinsic (I feel so good!) than extrinsic (post on social media).
The Future of Wearables
Where do we go from here?
More sensitive/flexible trackers - with bio-sensing abilities - are in development. Some already exist like the biometric shirts measuring cardiac and respiratory activities, along with sleep quality, movement, and position. At the time of writing, these are mostly used by elite athletes to optimize their training. These bio-metrics wearables are quite exciting! Still pricey though. It will be interesting to follow the competition within the industry as regular exercisers get curious and start looking into these true wearables.
Is your activity tracker keeping you un-fit? Answering the following simple question is a good way to find out:
Are you satisfied with hitting 10,000 steps a day or do you want to improve your fitness?