Why fitness trackers are for suckers (except when they're not)

Smart pedometers like the Jawbone Up, Nike FuelBand, and Fitbit Flex have flooded the market—no kidding, you can even get one for your kids, and another for your dog. But while it’s easy to describe what they actually do, the tougher question is whether they actually help us get in shape.

misfits necklace
The Misfit Shine is a high-fashion fitness tracker.

I’ve reviewed a handful of smart pedometers myself (even one that looks like jewelry), and also worn a few of them, but I confess I’m still a little bit skeptical.

So I asked the experts: Are smart pedometers worth it? The answer seems to depend on what type of person you are, what level of fitness you’re at, and what type of workouts you’re looking to do.

Do pedometers work?

“Movement changes your life,” says David Wang, cofounder and CEO of Striiv. “I don’t necessarily mean running or working out—just getting up out of your chair periodically and walking around helps a lot.” People are living increasingly sedentary lifestyles, thanks to white-collar office jobs, hour-long commutes, and 24-hour delivery services. We simply don’t have to move or walk as much as we used to—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, Wang says.

The Fitbit Zip and Fitbit One can both keep track of your steps.

“There are so many health benefits associated just with walking,” he explains. “It lowers your risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and even depression.” And he’s correct: A 2010 study by the American Heart Association found that women who walked two hours per week had a 30 percent lower risk of stroke than women who did not walk, while a 2003 study by the University of Pittsburgh found that walking for 30 minutes a day plays a significant role in staving off type 2 diabetes.

In other words, just walking—not running, or jogging, or working up a sweat—can lower your risk of everything from stroke and heart disease to diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

This is good news for pedometers, since they’re excellent at measuring steps and related statistics like distance walked and calories burned. Plus, a 2007 study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that pedometers are, in fact, effective motivational tools for getting people to walk more often. The study found that participants took approximately 2,100 additional steps, or about one mile, when using pedometers to track their mileage.

Don't forget to tell the Omron to start tracking your aerobic steps.

But that’s not all. The Stanford researchers evaluated specific components of the walking programs used in the studies they reviewed, and found that people were more likely to walk further if they set step goals and logged their daily activity. In other words, people were inspired by concrete goals and visible data—which is exactly what smart pedometers and activity trackers bring to the table. Smart pedometers are really just regular pedometers that have been enhanced with extra statistics, built-in challenges and goals, and data that is easy to upload and see in charts and graphs.

Pedometers definitely work, and smart pedometers are perhaps even more useful. However, that still doesn’t mean they’re for everyone, since not everyone has the goal of simply “moving more.”

Who benefits from a smart pedometer

They’re literally everywhere you look: magazines, billboards, the Internet, your local gym, The Biggest Loser, everywhere. But do you really need a smart pedometer if you want to get in shape?

The short answer is no. You never need a gadget to get in shape. But if you’re a certain type of person, a smart pedometer or activity tracker might be just the ticket to getting—and staying—motivated.

“Smart pedometers are great for getting started,” says Jason Buckley, a personal trainer in Beverly Hills “especially for people who are relatively new to working out and who don’t know a lot about fitness, because they help people see progress.” Smart pedometers track data and numbers and spit them back out at you (usually via a companion app or website) so you can see how you’ve improved over the past week, month, and year.

The Fitbug Air shows regular and "aerobic" steps

The Fitbug Air, for example, uses Bluetooth 4.0 to wirelessly upload data to an iOS app. The app shows how many steps you’ve taken over the past week, broken down into “aerobic” steps (“exercise” steps) and regular steps. The bar for each day is color-coded, so you can quickly see if you’ve met your total step and aerobic step goals. Being able to see this progress is motivating for people who are new to working out, Buckley says, because it allows them to see improvements in numbers before they start seeing physical improvements, such as weight loss or muscle gain.

But it’s not just data that motivates people. Some people are motivated by competition, Buckley explains.

The Nike+ Fuelband's leaderboard helps you compete against friends

“I train people who are friends, and they love to compete against each other,” Buckley says. “Everybody wants to work harder, and be better, than their buddies.” Many smart pedometers feature a social networking component, which allows users to “compete” against friends and strangers around the world. The Nike+ FuelBand, for example, connects to the NikeFuel social network, which features leaderboards, achievements, and goals to help keep you on track. It’s not just about working out more often or taking more steps than your friends do—it’s also about hitting global leaderboards so that everyone can see how awesomely mobile you are.

“Different motivational tools resonate with different people,” Wang says. “That’s why we put so many different motivators in our devices.” The Striiv Smart Pedometer has a little bit of everything: It’s got data and numbers, leaderboards and challenges, and special Striiv energy points that can be redeemed in the MyLand game (a FarmVille-like city-building game where users can spend energy to build houses and plants) or in the Striiv charity app, which donates to real charities around the world.

“Maybe people are only moving more because they want to grow their plants in MyLand,” Wang says. “But it doesn’t really matter, since the goal of getting them to move more in general is still being met.”

Who doesn't need a smart pedometer

Smart pedometers can inspire you to get off the couch, but not everyone needs that inspiration. Many people are active without the help of a device, and for them, a smart pedometer might not be a very good investment.

According to Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a Philadelphia-based weight loss physician who is board certified in obesity medicine, smart pedometers are only useful in very limited situations, and can actually do more harm than good in many cases.

“They’ll get you motivated to move, which is better than nothing,” Dr. Seltzer says. “But they can also give you a false sense of security, especially if your goal is to lose weight.” Most smart pedometers calculate calories burned based on a person’s self-reported height, weight, and age, but this is too simplistic, he explains. Smart pedometers do not take into account a person’s basal metabolic rate (how many calories they burn in a resting state), what type of exercise they’re doing, or their current heart rate. In other words, if you rely on a smart pedometer to count calories, you might be lured into overeating because of the overly simple statistics.

Dr. Seltzer also believes that smart pedometer goals have limited usefulness for people who are trying to improve their overall fitness. Goals and achievements typically involve step counts, miles walked, and stairs climbed. “Instead of increasing your step count, you should be trying to increase your intensity,” he says. “For example, you should focus on getting faster or stronger—not just doing more, regardless of intensity.”

The Withings Pulse also measures heart rate.

Only a few smart pedometers are capable of distinguishing between regular movement and “active” movement, and even then, they’re unable to track your heart rate, which is a true indicator of your intensity. The Omron Activity Tracker, for example, tracks “aerobic steps”—if you notify the device before you start your workout. The Fitbit Flex tracks “very active minutes,” which it recognizes when you’re moving constantly for a certain period of time. Of course, these “aerobic steps” and “very active minutes” could involve anything from a casual jog to an intense training session. The Withings Pulse can measure your heart rate, but only when you tell it to.

Worth it?

At the end of the day, the smart pedometer is as useful as you make it. They’re not just for lazy layabouts, either, though they can certainly help cajole sedentary office workers to jog up the stairs a couple of times each day instead of mashing the elevator button again.

Logging activity on MapMyFitness.

Smart pedometers are best for people who are motivated by data, numbers, and graphs. “Having a dedicated device that tracks activity does seem to motivate people to work out, or at least log their activity,” says Chris Glode, general manager at MapMyFitness. “When we offer challenges on MapMyFitness, people with dedicated devices log three times more activity than the people who are using an app, perhaps because a device is always on and is always tracking.” MapMyFitness is a Web service and running app that connects with various smart pedometers to increase the usefulness of data. But you can also use MapMyFitness on your phone, or track your data manually.

Smart pedometers can also help keep you on track if you’re motivated by competition with social networking friends, or even if you just enjoy racking up small accomplishments like goals and achievements (think Foursquare). But if you’re a self-motivated, active person looking to track your workouts, a smart pedometer may not be the device for you. Smart pedometers aren’t that smart—they can’t track workout intensity, heart rate, strength training, trail runs, cycling, or interval workouts, though some smart pedometers can connect to devices that do track these stats. Self-motivated fitness nerds may want to invest in a heart rate monitor instead.

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