Fitness Trackers – Who Benefits from Using Them?

By Jiri Kaloc

Do you use a fitness tracker such as Fitbit, Garmin, Suunto, Polar, Apple Watch, or Samsung Watch? They are really popular but they might not be the right choice for everyone. Let’s take a closer look at who benefits from them and who should steer clear.

Fitness trackers can help increase activity

Research shows that wearable fitness trackers can do one thing pretty well. A review of 38 clinical trials with over 4,200 participants reported that these trackers were associated with significantly increased physical activity levels after 15 weeks of use. About 70% of these trials showed increased levels of physical activity.

This research was done mainly on people who are dealing with diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Now the question remains whether using fitness trackers would be beneficial for healthy people as well. The answer to that depends on how people use them and how do they interpret the data they get from them.

Cyclist training
Do you use a fitness tracker? © Profimedia

Some people get more anxious after seeing their data

The problem with seeing the number of steps, quality of sleep, weight changes or heart rate variability is that people interpret them in different ways. Some consider these a way to judge how effective their training routine and lifestyle is. But others view these metrics as a statement of who they are. If seeing poor sleep on your tracker causes you to think “I must be broken” or “what’s wrong with me” then tracking might be doing more harm than good. Research suggests that there are, in fact, scenarios in which people tend to take fitness tracker data too personally and they become detrimental.

  • People who see the behaviour they track as a chore. “I have to do this to lose weight.”
  • People who don’t feel they have a choice. “My doctor told me I have to exercise.”
  • People who do it only to avoid feeling guilty. “I’m going to the gym because I don’t want to feel bad about not exercising.”

Fitness trackers aren’t helpful without a plan

The thing is that even if you love cycling, do it because you choose to and not to avoid guilt, you still might not benefit from fitness tracking. Research shows that without an action plan, fitness trackers can be fun but not helpful. Consider the two following scenarios.

Cyclist using a fitness tracker while having a plan

Someone who has a training plan uses tracking to see if they are improving. They know when it’s time to ride easy and build up their endurance base, even though the data for those rides are not impressive. They also know when it’s time to push and test whether they can improve their time on a certain climb. The data they see help them look back and improve their training plan going forward.

Cyclist using a fitness tracker without a plan

Someone who just tracks data because their fitness tracker does it. In this scenario, the data either mean nothing and have no real impact on the cyclist. Or alternatively, they might become a source of motivation to try their best time with every ride. This makes them push too hard too often and they burn out and quit or struggle to recover and stagnate. The data they see turn every training session into a race.

Who really benefits?

It’s clear that fitness trackers can be very beneficial in making people do more physical activity and offer data that can improve training effectiveness. If you use them for either of those two scenarios, you’re likely to benefit. But it’s also clear that some people tend to identify with the data too much and fitness tracking becomes a burden for them.

If you have a training plan and know how you want to use the data, you might be asking yourself how accurate these devices are. We will take a closer look at that in our next article.