No longer simply wrist bands, fitness trackers these days come in the guise of sports watches, chest straps and even patches that you wear like a Band-Aid 24/7.
The simplest devices measure movement and calories burned. Others also record sleep patterns and remind you to move; some have heart-rate monitors and GPS tracker built in for all-encompassing information.
Crunching Fitness Tracker Numbers
With sales of fitness trackers in the U.S. increasing approximately 500% annually for the past three years, you’d assume that the market is healthy. Tony Danova at Business Insider begs to differ.
He says that the “growth is only so high because the market is at such a low base.” In other words, fitness bands and activity trackers are relatively new products on the marketplace, so U.S. sales of 3.3 million (between April 2013 and March 2014) aren’t really all that impressive.
Ben Taylor at Time agrees, citing a recent study that “found that 85% of Americans have ‘no plans’ to buy a fitness band.” The reason? Maybe it’s that “staying fit just shouldn’t be this complicated,” he says.
Not everyone agrees with this assessment, and even the sales figures are disputed in a recent Reuters article, which notes that 84 million tracking devices were bought by Americans in 2013.
Mark Sullivan from VentureBeat offers another take, citing information from Juniper Research, when he writes: “Almost 60 million fitness trackers will be in use by 2018, tripling the number of the devices used this year.”
The Accuracy Debate
Numbers aside, people who use fitness trackers and apps also have extremely different opinions on the devices, discussing everything from possible radiation risks to how accurate the monitors really are. In the latter case, Healthista editor Anna Magee tested two trackers, wearing the Nike+ Fuelband and the Misfit Shine while working out. Both fitness trackers displayed the number of calories used during her exercise — but with a 250 calorie difference between the two.
Anna quotes Iowa State professor of kinesiology as saying: “‘There’s no published data on the validity of these fitness monitors. These companies release a product, and people buy it, but they don’t supply anything by way of evidence showing they work.’”
And even if you trust the data you’re getting from your tracker to be pretty accurate, fitness experts at Pittsburg State University say “most users … probably don’t have the knowledge to make the most of the … devices.”
The wellness lifestyle site Well+Good agrees, pointing out that “Data, it turns out, is only as good as what you do with it.”
The Issue of Motivation
So, let’s say you know how to interpret the feedback from your tracker and make use of it to improve your level of fitness. Will you actually do the activity?
Molly Wood of The New York Times says, “Many people lack the motivation to achieve significant results from working out alone with an app.” She agrees with StrengthCoach.com trainer Michael Boyle, who says: “It’s … easy to break an appointment with your iPad.”
Motivation is certainly an issue for most people when it comes to exercise, and fitness trackers that provide real-time connectivity between users addresses it through the use of a kind of peer pressure.
Dr. Fran Munkenbeck, a board-certified cardiologist, says fitness trackers “provide accountability, measurement, reward and even a social element to help motivate individuals — making them one of the best wellness tools on the market.”
The Future of Fitness Trackers
Perhaps the only thing that everybody agrees on is that the simplest form of fitness trackers aren’t enough to satisfy today’s consumer anymore. What will replace fitness wristbands, sport watches and smart garments?
CNET’s Nick Statt thinks it’ll be smartwatches. “Fitness wristbands, as popular as they have been so far, just don’t do enough to excite consumers when compared with devices like the Apple Watch and Motorola’s Moto 360 smartwatch — or do very little that a smartwatch can’t do and more,” Statt says.
Professor Mitesh Patel disagrees. In a Daily Mail article, the attending physician and teacher at the Philadelphia VA Medical Centre, citing research he’s conducted, says: “Compared to the one to two percent of adults in the U.S. that own a wearable device, more than 65 percent of adults carry a smartphone. Our findings suggest that smartphone apps could prove to be a more widely accessible and affordable way of tracking health behaviors.”