Why Your Fitness Tracker Is Failing You

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Wearable fitness-tracking gadgets made by Jawbone, Fitbit, Nike, and other sports-tech companies are supposed to help you run faster, pedal harder, or even just motivate you to exercise. But according to a new research paper published in JAMA, these devices usually fail to make people more fit. That's because simply recording steps, speed, or calories burned is not enough to spark the behavior changes necessary to improve athletic performance. "The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial," write the paper's authors, a team of doctors from the University of Pennsylvania. "However, while these devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging that gap."

But this doesn't mean you should give up on your new Garmin Vivosmart. Nor should you stop shopping for a fitness tracker if you've been wanting one for a while. You can, in fact, make these gadgets work for you. But as the docs outline their paper, in order for a fitness tracker to have any shot at helping you up your game, the device — and your motivation for buying it — must meet the following four criteria.

1. You have to really want that tracker.
Although wearable fitness trackers have come down in price in recent years, most of them still cost a couple hundred bucks or more. Since you're going to have to pony up some cash for a tracker, make sure it'll be a sound investment. Ask yourself whether you truly want the device and will use it. If you're simply dazzled by the latest, greatest technology, or if you'd be buying one just because you think you should, then it might not do you much good.


2. You have to actually use it.
This sounds painfully obvious, but according to the JAMA paper, lack of use is a huge barrier to finding success with a fitness tracker. In fact, half of all people who purchase these devices don't actually use them. If you keep forgetting to strap on your wrist tracker before trail runs, it probably won't be long before you forget about the gizmo altogether. The researchers also state that people often fail to retrieve and assess the recorded data, especially when the info is sent to a computer. For this reason, they say that smartphone-compatible trackers may better encourage frequent use.

3. It must accurately track the data you want.
According to the paper, some tools within wearable devices, such as accelerometers, have proven to be fairly accurate. However, certain newer technologies imbedded in wearables, such as heart rate monitors and sleep trackers, don't have much evidence to back their validity. A recent study by the American Council on Exercise demonstrated such inaccuracies when it put five popular fitness trackers to the test. When participants walked or ran on treadmills or used elliptical trainers, the devices tracked their steps within 10 percent accuracy — which is actually impressive. But when the volunteers performed various agility drills that required less-redundant movements, the step trackers were well off the mark. Additionally, these devices failed to accurately measure energy expenditure. The take-home message: Stick to the basics, and don't be wooed by an extensive list of features and tools. They may not be as accurate as you think they are, and regardless, the info they provide might be above and beyond what you'd ever need or actually use in the first place.

4. It must provide meaningful feedback that motivates change.
Assuming the recorded data is accurate, for any of it to mean anything to you, it must be displayed in a clear, understandable, easily accessible format. So when shopping for a fitness tracker, make sure you can comprehend the info that it spits out. When you can easily mine and digest the data, it's much more likely motivate you to change your behavior, whether that's pushing harder through your runs or challenging yourself to avoid the elevator at work all week.