Weight watch: How effective are fitness trackers?

From counting steps and monitoring sleep to measuring every heartbeat, activity trackers make you more aware of where you stand. Experts and users offer a SWOT analysis on their usefulness.

health Updated: Jan 08, 2018 12:44 IST
Fitness trackers are useful for those who live an inactive life, to achieve at least the minimum activity required, says fitness expert Neeraj Mehta.(iStock)

Media entrepreneur Anshul Tewari, 27, is so busy all week that he can’t find the time to exercise.

The wakeup call came when he was late for a flight and missed it because he couldn’t run all the way to the gate. “I was 14 kg overweight, so I downloaded some fitness apps and got a wearable device last year. But I didn’t stick to my schedule for the first three months,” he says.

He then got a device that came with a set of workout routines and, with some help from his gym instructor, lost 12 kg in 10 months doing cardio along with weight-training.

“A device alone is not enough,” he says. “The person has to be committed and motivated.”

Anshul Tewari says he lost 12 kg in 10 months doing cardio and weight training after he got a wearable device that came with a set of workout routines.

The wearable fitness devices available today range from the simple to the mind-boggling complex, with prices going from Rs 2,000 to Rs 20,000. Some offer just a basic step-counter and distance tracker; others tell you how many calories you likely burned or, as with Fitbit, monitor heart rate and sleep patterns 24x7.

“The devices are very effective in keeping people motivated as they can track their progress and work towards a specific goal,” says Kiran Sawhney, a Delhi-based fitness trainer. “There are other features that are beneficial too — the Apple watch, for instance, can tell when you’ve just been sitting, and will prompt you to take a brief walk.”

The shareable data aspect allows users to compare notes and motivate each other.

A SWOT analysis

“If you are new to a daily routine of exercise, a wearable fitness device will motivate you for a few months,” says fitness expert Neeraj Mehta. “It is also very beneficial for people who lead an otherwise inactive life, and have medical issues such as high cholesterol. The tracker helps push you to achieve at least the minimum activity required.”

A big downside is that most wearable devices depend heavily on the step-counting feature or heart-rate monitor and therefore track primarily cardiovascular activity. Strength training is unaccounted for.

“And strength training is extremely important to maintain the fitness of the muscles,” says sports medicine expert Dr Pushpinder Singh Bajaj.

The sense of community certainly does help. Gaurav Mishra, a 32-year-old theatre actor based in Mumbai, bought the Mi Band 1 about 18 months ago, to help him meet a daily activity goal. “The first month was difficult. But once I got used to having a daily target, I began jogging every day,” he says.

A huge factor was that some of his friends were also using the device, and they would motivate each other. “I lost that first band four months ago and switched companies. The new brand does not have as many people from my circle on it and it has impacted my motivation considerably,” he says.

Why do people abandon the device?

A survey of people using wearable devices in the US found that more than half no longer used the device they purchased. One-third stopped using it within six months of purchase.

Event manager Saurabh Garg, 35, ditched his in a month. “It would show 10,000 steps taken even if all I’d done was sit at my desk, based on my wrist movement only,” he says.

Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, a resident doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, has completely abandoned the device he bought last year.

“I have to move around the hospital for my job and have a moderate activity level. The device did not tell me anything new,” he says.

Another study found that people who self-reported their diet and exercise lost more weight than those who tracked their progress using a wearable device. The researchers attributed this to people getting de-motivated when they did not meet their goals or ending up eating more because they thought they had burned enough calories.

“The Fitbit or any other device for that matter can tell you what you did and what you should do, but it cannot force you to go for a run. It’s an enabler. It is just like how the gym subscriptions go up in January, but do all of the people end up working out?” said Alok Shankar, General Manager – India for Fitbit.

Theatre actor Gaurav Mishra feels that having friends on the same device helped motivate him.

Getting better results

Wearable fitness devices are moving towards providing more personalised suggestions that can help people build up their fitness levels.

“Over the decade since its launch, about 70 million devices have been sold and we have nearly 30 million active users. This means that we have a huge amount of data that helps us refine our algorithms and make our AI [artificial intelligence] smarter,” says Shankar. “The AI will be able to tell you that this is what you need to do more of; these are the things you need to change.”

A premium coaching option will also allow users to ‘train’ their devices. “For example, if a workout says 10 pushups but you are only able to do 7, the device will accept feedback from you and amend its recommendations according to your fitness level,” Shankar says.

First Published: Jan 06, 2018 18:27 IST