Do Fitness Trackers Really Work?

Dr. Valerie Scott with Roper St. Francis Physician Partners discusses the benefits of fitness trackers and how they work.

fitness tracker


Yoga pants at the grocery store isn’t the half of it. These days fitness attire has stretched beyond being a fashion statement into high-tech accessories, thanks to “wearables.”

If you’re sporting a FitBit, Garmin or other step- and sleep-logging fitness tracking gadget, you’re certainly in step with millions of Americans. In 2015, we spent a whopping $1.46 billion on “wearables,” nearly double the 2014 expenditure. According to the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual forecast, the technology was the number one fitness trend for 2016 and ’17.

But do they really work? Beyond counting steps or ZZZs, does all that tracking and monitoring lead to improved health?

Well, they can, says Dr. Valerie Scott, a family medicine doctor with Roper St. Francis Physician Partners. “To benefit from a fitness tracker, you need to understand your device and how it works,” she says.

The devices use sensors to record data such as the number of steps taken, calories burned and hours of sleep logged. More advanced varieties spit out details on speed, pace, routes traveled, heart rate and breathing and/or heart rate patterns during runs, swims or bike rides. But the sensors vary per device, as do the equations used to aggregate data.

And numbers and data alone do not improve health without one key element: user motivation.

Dr. Scott considers them helpful by giving a clear picture of how much you move throughout a regular day. “Often when I ask patients what they do for exercise, they say, ‘I walk a lot at work,’” says Dr. Scott. “But we all tend to overestimate our activity levels.” Wearables hold you accountable. A little reality testing.

african american woman wearing a fitness trackerFrom walk-and-talk meetings with co-workers to extra laps around the neighborhood after dinner, more movement is most certainly a worthy goal, says Dr. Scott. She sees “huge value” in the fitness trackers that vibrate to inform the wearer that they haven’t moved in, say, an hour. “Prolonged sitting has terrible metabolic effects on your body,” she notes.

Research shows that sedentary bodies don’t break down blood sugar and cholesterol as well as those that move more often, and that prolonged sitting may increase the amounts of calcium and fatty build-up in the heart’s arteries. “I don’t sit if I can avoid it,” says Dr. Scott, who advises patients to get up and move for at least two minutes every an hour.

But Dr. Scott admits that she hasn’t noticed significant weight loss among her sleep- and step-tracking patients, and some research supports the idea that fitness trackers aren’t super successful at helping overweight users slim down. The likely reason? “Most people don’t pair their increased activity with improved nutrition,” she says.

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