Is it time to do away with your fitness tracker?

Alice Barraclough
Man and machine: fitness has become increasingly gadgetised since the turn of the century - www.alamy.com

More bad news for fitness trackers. A new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia has concluded that the Fitbit – arguably the market leading fitness tracker – only meets "acceptable accuracy for step count approximately half the time". The paper, published in a medical journal, found that the tracker is liable to register steps when the user is sleeping; and that it has a tendency to over-estimate exertion during high intensity exercise like sprinting, while under-estimating the amount the body is working during lower intensity movements like walking.

It follows on from a report by consumer champions Which? earlier this year, that found that that some trackers are so wildly inaccurate they under- or over-estimate distances by up to 32 percent.

Not that the fitness tracker industry is suffering, mind. According to data compiled by Mintel, four million smartwatches and fitness bands were sold in the UK in 2017 – up 18pc on the previous year. One in five Britons report using wearable technology to measure their movements; and 33 percent believe wearable technology will “make their lives better”.

So, is it time we put away our fitness trackers? And how can you really tell how far you’ve run, or how hard you’ve actually worked, if you leave the house without your possibly-not-so-trusty fitness gadget?

Mark Esteban, an educational coach at Vivobarefoot who’s been working with runners for more than 35 years, says that while he loves technology, he always advises new runners to forget about fitness trackers. “Whether you’re an elite athlete, a beginner, a park-runner or somewhere in between, fun has to be the headline for everyone,” he says. “My advice to new runners is to run with nothing – no tracker. You can maybe use a stopwatch to measure the time you’re on your feet, but you should run with absolutely no technology for at least six months, and then, if you really want to (and you get into running), you can slowly introduce it.”

Esteban argues that using fitness technology is more valuable after you learn how your body responds to physical activity and what ‘maximum effort’ or ‘half-effort’ means to you – because, only once you understand how you feel can you truly tell what the numbers actually mean.

“I also tell established runners who might have gone a bit rusty or become too reliant on their kit and their tech to take six months off to re-calibrate themselves,” he continues. “The bad thing about gadgets is that they allow us to focus too much on the numbers – and as that Which? report has shown, some of them actually aren’t that accurate – which makes humans stressed. And there’s really nothing worse than a stressed runner.”

One thing I know for certain is technology shouldn’t be adding to your stress levels; it should be helping to relieve them. Plus, there's an issue around technique here. If you’re looking down at your tech while running, you’re actually disturbing your posture, and anyone who’s interested in performance, or running fast – well, let’s just say that definitely won’t help.

The midlife HIIT rules: how to use high intensity workouts without harming your body

Know thyself

Esteban believes that if you want to take your running seriously, you need to go back to basics. “One thing is true for all human beings: to run fast, you have to be able to run slow,” he says.

“It was discovered in the 1960s by a brilliant running coach called Arthur Lydiard – one of my heroes – who, through trial and error, found that by starting slowly and running aerobically, you’re able to run faster by increasing the number of mitochondria – the energy ‘factory’ – in muscle cells."

For Estaban, the rise of fitness trackers has led to people forgetting this important nugget. “I find a lot of modern runners are always running at a high intensity – I think gadgets are to blame – and they end up becoming burnt out. So actually, if these runners went more on feel and effort, they’d always know where they are and when to stop pushing, and wouldn’t need to rely on electronic gadgets to tell them when their body is screaming to stop.”

Put the screens away

A recent survey into the screen use of 2,000 adults, commissioned by Encore Tickets, found that an average Briton spends six hours a day looking at screens, including smartphones, tablets, work computers and televisions. So why, when we’re looking at screens all day long, should we spend even more time looking at another, smaller screen?

James Hardy, personal trainer at Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre at Hotel Café Royal in central London, suggests that training (whether that’s going to the gym, attending a fitness class or playing a team sport) gives people the chance to reduce screen-dwelling time. “There’s plenty of studies on how it’s affecting our concentration,” he says. “I’m a big fan of meditation to channel my thoughts away from screens. But then you have an app like Headspace which has exploded as an easy entry into meditation – and it’s on your phone. Go figure that one!”

Fitness trackers aren't entirely reliable – so why do we bother? Credit: alamy

The question he asks is: where does the tech stop and the human start?

“I think there needs to be more thought put into the psychology, rather than the tech. One of the benefits of wearables is that you can compare your times with friends, but there’s actually a debate about whether competitive motivation is as good for you,” says Hardy. “And what does tech do for the people who aren’t motivated or don’t do enough exercise?

“It’s relatively easy if you’re fit and highly motivated to stay in shape, but take someone who can’t afford an expensive gym membership, I don’t think that knowing their step or calorie count is going to provide enough motivation to get them moving – and they’re the people we really want to reach out to.”

Steve Tansey, head of research and development at Les Mills, agrees: “I just don’t think they [fitness watches] tell the whole story,” he tells me. “I’d much rather people just focus on the enjoyment of what they’re doing. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually quite like the idea of being in the moment and doing something because it makes me feel good and I enjoy it, rather than: ‘have I hit a certain amount of points today’ or ‘have I burnt a certain number of calories’.”

Have you fallen for the Great Calorie Con?

Tansey serves a reminder that the numbers on your screen only tell half the story; developing an unhealthy obsession with counting calories, or whether you hit that (somewhat mythical) 10,000 steps a day target, could be causing more harm than good. Yes, calorie-counting can help if you're looking to lose weight, but focusing solely on this provides too limited a view of the other transformations taking place in our bodies when we exercise.

So, will the experts be ditching the tech? “I think fitness trackers are a useful tool, but I don’t push people to use them,” says Hardy. “We used manual measuring before, and it worked if you knew what to do; I mean, you can measure your heart rate with your fingers.”

“I don’t even own one,” admits Tansey. “Do I think they’re sustainable? Probably not. But what motivates me might not motivate someone else. As long as they get people moving – whether that’s down to what they’ve got on their wrists, around their chest or strapped on their head – it doesn’t really matter, we just need people to get more active.”

If tackling the obesity crisis is the aim, fitness trackers alone are unlikely to be the ‘quick-fix’ solution we so desperately need. Last year, the UK was named as the most overweight nation in Western Europe – with around 27 per cent of Britons now classed as clinically obese, and another 36 per cent overweight. With stats like these, it’s hard to see how, when they’re so popular, fitness trackers are making a positive impact.

However, if using an app or a fitness watch can encourage you to go from couch potato to 5k runner extraordinaire then keep on tracking. Just remember: whatever watch or technology you’re using, it might not actually be that accurate. And, as PT Hardy says: “You just can’t feel guilty to an app or a screen”.