How Fitness Trackers Are Ruining Your Workout

Sales of fitness trackers have never been stronger. And that’s a bad thing, says Andy Galpin, a professor of kinesiology at the Center for Sport Performance at California State University. In fact, in his new book, Unplugged: Evolve From Technology to Upgrade Your Fitness, Performance and Consciousness, Galpin and co-authors Brian MacKenzie and Phil White explain that the smarter path to fitness is to tap into the technology you’ve always had: your brain.

“This means learning to trust your gut and training by how your body feels in the moment,” says Galpin, who also co-hosts one of the Web’s most popular fitness podcasts, The Body of Knowledge. We sat down with him — gadget-free — to hear more about how to hone our natural exercise instincts.

You argue we’ve become reliant on trackers. Why is that a bad thing?

For starters, it’s not a good idea to outsource decision-making to technology that is often wildly inaccurate. Research shows that these devices can have up to a 40 percent margin of error. Plus, how do you interpret the numbers you do get? A device may tell you that you’ve logged 100,000 steps this week or that your sleep’s been crappy — but what does that mean? There’s no direction. It’s literally just tracking you. And all that data can be overwhelming and cause paralysis.

What if you like getting constant data?

The problem is that you can get hooked on constant data, and that can crush the joy of exercise. Take the runner’s high — the dopamine rush you get from running. Every time you check heart rate, pace, or split time, you get a little dopamine hit. But eventually the numbers become the source of pleasure rather than the actual activity. You need to look at the device more and more to get your fix, while the activity itself becomes secondary. That’s not sustainable.

So, should we ditch trackers? 

Heart-rate monitors and activity trackers have some benefit: They show you roughly what moderate or intense physical activity is. But the ultimate goal should be to feel these intensity levels yourself. I don’t know what 85 percent of my max heart rate is, but I know exactly what it feels like to go at a challenging pace. If you have that personal understanding, you don’t need tech.

How do you get that?

Practice using a simple intensity scale of 1 to 10. (One is walking the dog; 10 is your heart feeling like it will explode out of your chest.) You want to train throughout that entire range. I suggest this: Every day, do something in the 1 to 4 range. A few times a week, hit the 4 to 6 range — light jogging, lifting weights, taking a class. A couple of times a week, go up to the 6 to 8 range — maybe you crank it up with a tough circuit or sprints. Then, twice a month, hit that 9 to 10 intensity: You’re working at your absolute max. Train like this and you’re far less likely to get injured or mentally burned out, and you’ll get better physical results too.

I hear you’re also no fan of genetic tests that give fitness recommendations. Why?

These tests might be very good at telling you whether you have red hair or blue eyes. That stuff is pretty dialed in. But the performance, nutrition, and training — for example, tests for whether you tend genetically toward slow- or fast-twitch muscle fibers or how well your body absorbs certain nutrients — this information is extremely immature right now, and often pretty wrong. 

Is there any tool we’re not using enough?

A mirror. I use one during warm-ups to check form and to gauge what muscles look tight and need to be mobilized. I also don’t think it’s narcissistic to look at yourself naked. Check out your quads, that back fat. Know what your body looks like. How will you ever know that you’re progressing if you don’t?