It's no secret that 2016 hasn't exactly been a banner year for the humble fitness tracker.
In 2015, 78 million units shipped worldwide—a 171% increase from the previous year. But now the backlash has officially arrived, and it’s not pretty. If you believe recent news reports, the fitness tracker is such a bust we may as well enshrine it in the Doomed-Fad Hall of Fame, next to the ThighMaster, dial-up Internet, and metrosexuals.
According to Wired, fitness trackers are kind of useless. “They Won’t Really Help Until They Tell Us Exactly What to Do,” to paraphrase one recent headline. Meanwhile, in January, a New York Times columnist called them trash, declaring, “These gadgets are ending up in drawers and closets as expensive reminders of how wearable gadgets are not ready for prime time.” When asked his thoughts about trackers during a CNBC Facebook Live chat in June, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman tartly answered: “Junk drawer.”
And perhaps most troubling for the data-gathering workout junkies among us, some major wearable makers are facing allegations that their products simply aren’t accurate. But whatever the reason, the onslaught of negative press seems to be taking its toll: one-time industry behemoth Jawbone reportedly lost half of its valuation by early this year—down from $3 billion in 2014—amid a failure to launch a breakthrough tracker.
What’s true—and not true—about fitness trackers?
To be fair, the haters aren’t completely without ammunition.
First, let’s get accuracy out of the way.
Yes, six different trackers, worn simultaneously, will give you six slightly different step counts. But should that be a deal-breaker? Rather than obsessing over, for example, whether you walked 8,456 steps or 8,875 steps today, try thinking of the bigger picture: Roughly 10,000 steps are considered the bare minimum, so if you’re often well below that—which only a tracker can tell you—you know it’s time to move more. Will it be exact? No. Will it be eventually? Absolutely.
As for heart-rate tracking, it’s true that wrist-worn monitors, which use optical tracking (light sensors), are less accurate than chest-worn ones, which rely on electromagnetic signals. “Right now, wrist technology works by shining light ointo the body and reading how it scatters off blood; but the light scatters off of anything—muscle motion, gross body motion, skin motion, even blood motion—and overwhelms the tiny, tiny blood-flow signal,” says Steven LeBoeuf, Ph.D., co-founder and president of Valencell Inc., which makes biometric data sensors such as optical heart-rate monitors.
The industry is well aware of the problem and is pouring money into R & D to solve it, LeBoeuf adds—in fact, he estimates that competing technology companies have spent more than $100 million on this problem alone. He says they’ve already developed substantially more accurate monitoring in wearables and continue to push the technology forward, focusing on advanced biometrics. In the meantime, the existing ones are extremely accurate for measuring resting heart rate, which is important (more on that later), and they’re pretty good for exercises like running and cycling in which the forearms aren’t heavily engaged. If you want a more precise heart-rate measurement during your workouts, you can invest in a chest-strap monitor.
Next: the question of usefulness. Fitness trackers, with their reams of data—daily step counts, calorie burn, sleep quality, stress, and heart rate—were supposed to fundamentally change our lives. We’d move more, lose weight, sleep better, and become, generally speaking, fitter, happier, and, it seemed, maybe just a hair closer to immortal.
And while trackers have no doubt nudged millions to be more active, too often the effect has been fleeting. In fact, according to the consulting firm Endeavour Partners, half of all buyers of fitness wearables eventually stop using them, with a third of that group dumping them within just six months. “That’s because most people do the same routine on most days,” says John Bartholomew, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. “If I do my normal walk and have my regular workday, that gets me just over 8,000 steps. So I know that, if I do something extra, it’s enough to get me to my 10,000-step goal. And since I already have that information, a fitness tracker wouldn’t be telling me anything new.”
Point taken. If you’re content with being a generally healthy person who exercises moderately, eats fairly well, and isn’t overweight—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that—you can certainly maintain the status quo without leaning constantly on a tracker.
But if you’re a guy with goals beyond a daily constitutional and you aspire to improve in any meaningful way—whether it’s via strength, size, or conditioning—it’s another story altogether. And there the anti-tracker masses are not only misguided but also mind-bogglingly narrow-minded about the potential of these powerful data collectors.
That’s because every trainer will tell you that the perfect workout inhabits a sort of Goldilocks Zone, a space between doing too little and doing too much, when you stress your body but don’t go overboard. And lots of guys go overboard. “The reality is, even many high-performing people don’t really know what they’re doing to their body—they overtrain, undertrain, misinterpret fitness peaks, and don’t necessarily understand the importance of recovery or sleep,” says Will Ahmed, CEO of Whoop, whose new tracker, one of the most exciting ever conceived, hits the market this holiday season.
Sure, your own senses can offer a good baseline assessment—if you feel like crap, you probably haven’t recovered from the last big effort. But there’s simply no doubt that having constant access to your resting and max heart rates (see: How decoding your resting and maximum heart rates can help you crush your workouts and avoid overtraining), sleep quality, and stress levels and knowing how to interpret and use that information is a huge asset for staying in peak condition.
So instead of crying, “Where can I ditch this damn thing,” it’s obvious that there’s a better question that they—and we—should be asking:
“Do I actually know how to use it?"
Well, do you really know how to use it? Probably not.
One of the biggest knocks against fitness trackers has been their one-size-fits-all approach to health and fitness, with everyone from twentysomething rugby players to aging retirees chasing the same goals of 10,000 daily steps and eight hours of sleep. Granted, a more useful device would focus on just me—sample size of one—to learn my optimal numbers and offer personalized daily advice on how to achieve them. Though we’re not entirely there yet, trackers and their apps are better at this than people give them credit for.
Right now, most reputable trackers can handle basic metrics like steps and sleep and, increasingly, resting heart rate (like the Apple Watch and the Samsung Fit2 models). Some even check heart-rate variability, though that’s still fairly rare. (The new Whoop does it.)
That said, here are the ways to apply those features to your own life.
STEPS: Many fitness enthusiasts argue that counting steps is useless, but actually it’s worth paying attention to for a couple of reasons. First, it can keep you from overdoing it between workouts, especially if you’re in an intense period of training or even if you work in a physical job that keeps you on your feet. “Your body can’t really distinguish workout stress from other stress—it all goes into the same pot,” says endurance coach and fitness author Matt Fitzgerald.
Second, tracking reminders to get off your ass every hour are hugely helpful for deskbound athletes since sitting triggers a whole different chain of horrible physiological responses that, studies show, are killing us with chronic diseases. Even exercise can’t outweigh the negative consequences.
RESTING HEART RATE: Your heart rate is the only objective measure of where you are in your recovery, making it the fundamental key to deciding how intensely you should be working out and when you’re working out too intensely.
Hardcore athletes have traditionally checked their pulse first thing on waking up in the morning by counting the number of beats in 10 seconds, then multiplying that by six. But with more of today’s trackers offering 24-hour wrist-based measurements, you can get your number while sleeping—an even truer measure, since it’s not influenced by any external factors, like a crying baby or that 9 a.m. meeting you haven’t yet prepped for. The aforementioned optical sensors are actually pretty good at measuring your resting number; it’s when there’s a lot of muscle movement in your wrist and forearm—e.g., when you’re lifting weights—that they can get into trouble. If your resting heart rate is consistently higher than it should be, you need to step back from rigorous exercise.
SLEEP: Sleep is, obviously, the most underrated but important aspect of recovery. The most basic wrist-worn wearables track sleep using accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure movement. Though it’s not as accurate or detailed as measuring brain activity, it can give you fairly accurate sleep hours and show when you wake up at night. When your body is trashed from a hard workout, one of the best things you can do for it is sleep. That’s when the body goes to work repairing, compensating, and then overcompensating for muscle damage caused by exercise. “In our modern lifestyle, we tend to underestimate the value of sleep,” says Daniel Plews, Ph.D., a performance physiologist/scientist and rowing coach with High Performance Sport New Zealand.
“It’s such an important part of life, and tracking it can make you tune into it a little bit more.”
Yes, less than seven hours a night is poor sleep. But you can also spot trends with a tracker—for some reason, I consistently sleep my best on Sunday and Wednesday nights—so you can schedule your more difficult workouts accordingly. In the long run you’ll find yourself bouncing back faster and making greater progress.
HEART-RATE VARIABILITY: This is the measurement of tiny fluctuations in the time intervals between heartbeats, which, next to straight-up blood testing, is the gold standard for measuring stress and fatigue (i.e., recovery). For example, when you breathe in, your heart rate speeds up, and when you exhale it slows down. So your heart rate will actually vary between, say, 55 and 65, instead of being fixed at, say, 60. The lower the variability—and more regular the heartbeats—the more strain the body is experiencing.
The moment I really started to believe in trackers
I’m an avid biker and runner, and I rock a Garmin Forerunner 735XT, a fitness-tracking GPS watch that establishes heart-rate zones based on my maximum heart rate. On a recent outing I’m running up Cass Hill, a 500-foot-tall hill in Clarksville, NY, whose average gradient is nearly 11% (for comparison, most Tour de France climbs are closer to 7%), where I’m aiming to hit my goal of climbing 11,445 feet (3,489 meters)—equivalent to the elevation gain from Everest Base Camp to the summit—before the end of the month. I know that my max heart rate is 184. I try to keep heart rate at roughly 160, but it keeps skyrocketing toward my max. After clicking past nine miles, my watch’s “Recovery Estimator” tells me I should wait 72 hours before another hard run. That seems like a shockingly long time, but I take heed.
A week later, after completing a third hill workout—this one 10.3 miles with 2,200 feet of climbing—the Recovery Estimator says to wait 96 hours, its maximum value.
That sounds so preposterous I think my tracker’s gone glitchy, so I ignore it. The next day, the Garmin app on my iPhone warns me that I’m not sleeping enough, producing a colorful graph with my past seven days of sleep data, including two consecutive nights with less than six hours. (Work deadlines have been converging recently, and I’ve been up working all hours.) I have unusually high morning “Stress Scores,” a number that’s generated by a daily three-minute heart-rate variability test. But because I have 2,000 more feet to reach my goal, I decide to lace up my running shoes just 48 hours later and take on yet another monster hill.
Only this time I feel like utter crap—my legs feel wooden, my glutes and hamstrings are on fire, and my heart rate is soaring through the roof, especially given my lowly shuffle—and I bail after only two laps, or 1,200 feet. Overall, I feel like shit, and I’ve done more harm than good to my body.
My tracker told me to hold off, but I didn’t listen. Suffice it to say, I haven’t defied the data since.