Health & Wellbeing

Fitness trackers: Feeding an obsession?

Man with a fitness tracker on an exercise bike

There’s a lot of fitness trackers flooding the market at the moment costing from as little as twenty or thirty quid, pushing up to a couple of hundred for the more superior, ‘bells and whistles’ models. They can monitor your heart and pulse rates, log your exercise and diet, estimate how many calories you burn and even calculate and report back on the amount, and the quality, of your sleep.

According to an article in the Guardian this week, twenty-five million fitness trackers will be sold worldwide this year so is the purchase of that fitness tracker the first step to a healthier and better version of you or are you teetering on the brink of an obsessive behaviour that will eventually take over your life?

Earlier in the year, an article in the BMJ caught our eye. Written by a concerned GP it warned that fitness trackers are largely untested, most definitely unscientific and can cause anxiety in some people who will be governed by the results of the constant monitoring and who will adapt all actions, including calorific intake and levels of exercise, accordingly. If you are inclined to be obsessive, these trackers may well take you beyond the boundaries of regular enthusiasm. The immediate worry is whether they could potentially do more harm than good…

Going back to the Guardian article, it refers to a study at Iowa State University which compared five trackers energy expenditure readings across a group of people and found significant discrepancies with error margins ranging from 15 per cent to 30 per cent. Some of the devices over-estimated energy expenditure while others under-estimated it.

Such misleading outcomes could be problematic in the long-term if it leads people to feel that they’re failing when they’re not. Worse, others might think that they are burning off more calories than they actually are and so feel encouraged to eat more. If something’s going to have an impact on our behaviour then at least let it be accurate.