Why fitness trackers are useless
This article provides you with an in-depth overview of the current wearables market, a use case and real-life examples from someone who has been using fitness trackers for several years. All in all, most fitness trackers lose their usefulness after six months when the trainee moves on to a higher level of fitness and needs a more specialized tool to support progress. The claims that fitness trackers are completely useless are blown out of proportion based on poor research and stupid users. Trackers are not necessary to get fit, but in the right hands, help to reinforce good behavior patterns. The devices become useless because they have fulfilled their purpose or their wearers misused them, not because their design is inherently flawed.
The global wearables market is interesting and ever-changing, The first consumer wearable that hit the shelves was the Pulsar Calculator wristwatch. Since then we have seen the first Bluetooth headset in 2000 and the first GoPro in 2004. Google glass followed in 2013. Sales are projected to double by 2021 within the market.
In the last few years, a trend amongst fitness enthusiasts to fitness trackers had emerged. Now times are changing again as these devices got a bad reputation. One discussion circled around trackers possibly causing cancer. The other that fitness trackers have no benefit to get healthier.
If that was not bad enough producers of fitness trackers now also face a double crunch from other wearables like Smartwatches which are consolidating the functionalities of fitness trackers into their devices and one Chinese low-cost player pushing hard into the market. Here are the latest numbers from IDC Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker Report.
When you look at the five main participants in the wearable market according to the IDC report it is interesting to do a little, even though flawed, analysis.
Fitbit used to be the gold standard for fitness trackers and wearables and competed with Jawbone. Jawbone has meanwhile gone out of business. In 2014 Fitbit faced a rough year having to recall some of their products while Xiaomi and Apple announced to enter the wearables market with their own product lines in the same year.
As both of these companies were able to make use of their large customer in Asia and the western world respectively they were able to push Fitbit off the throne in market share and put them in third place.
Garmin has been into wearables including technology the longest specializing in GPS and has the most targeted gadgets of the five companies Rather. Rather than targeting general fitness, their devices are made for specific sports uses like golf, diving and running.
Fossil is the newest player
Newer products pay more attention to their design as one of the main complaints of users about fitness trackers was that they are not very fashionable and can be worn with very little except sports clothing. The older design generations are bolstered with more and more functionality in ever-shrinking space.
All devices currently fall short of being a complete personal trainer for all fitness needs, in my opinion. It will be interesting to see where the next disruptive leap in technology will lead us in the wearables industry like the iPod disrupted the music industry.
Xiaomi is a Chinese electronics and software company which was founded in 2010 with headquarters in Beijing. Lei Jun is the founder of the company and 24th richest person in China according to Forbes. After Samsung and Apple, they are the third largest producer of smartphones worldwide. In the fitness tracker department, they have two products, the Mi Band and AMAZFIT.
The Mi band which was announced in 2014 is taking the market by storm and spreading over the world. Since its release in 2014 a heart rate monitor (MI Band 1s), Watch and Touchpad have been added (Mi Band 2). The look and design are more similar to a wristband than a watch.
In 2016 AMAZFIT hit the shelves which
Apple does not need any introduction as most people in the west know it. I have to admit my ignorance as I was not aware of Xiaomi since I started the research for this article. Build by Steve Jobs who then died early of cancer the company is now lead by Ex IBMer Timothy Cook. I highly recommend the Steve Jobs biography written by Walter Isaacson to get more background and improve your general knowledge.
Just like the Asian player, Xiaomi, is pushing into the wearables market, so does Apple. In the same year as the Mi Band was announced Apple announced their apple watch which was released on 24th of April 2015. Since then Apple did two upgrades to the product so that we find ourselves with Apple watch generation 3 since 12th of September 2017.
Apple watch on display in Germany Saturn
Fitbit was known as Healthy Metrics Research until 2007. The rebranding was orchestrated together with releasing their first fitness tracker, which was called Fitbit tracker. Fitbit is based in San Francisco and spread from there all over the world. The products which you can currently find in their wearables range are
The range from
My own Fitbit Alta HR after meeting my
Garmin Ltd. was founded by Gary Burrell and Min Kao in 1989 in Lenexa, Kansas, United States. Garmin is specialized in GPS technology and has used their knowledge to implement their precise instruments into wearables. Through this, they have been competing with Apple, Fitbit, and Xiaomi for market share in this segment. Beside the Garmin Forerunner product line, Garmin also produces GPS products for mariners, the automotive and mining industry.
The first Garmin Forerunner watches were released in 2003 after Garmin registered the name with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in August 2001. The first three watches to be released were the 101, 201 and 301. Since then Garmin has been continuously releasing updates to the existing and introduced new ones in this segment of their business. The available models in 2017 are:
In Garmin's range, you will find specialized items for divers, golfers and endurance athletes. It is also interesting how the design of Fitbit was copied with the
Garmin Fenix 5 close up
Garmin 235 on display ( I used to own a Garmin 220)
Fossil is an American fashion designer based in Richardson Texas which was founded in 1984. The initial public offering was in 1993 and a reported revenue of 3 billion USD dollar was reported in 2016. One of the more quirky aspects of wearables regarding Fossil is that they produce movie-related collectibles. Some designs include Superman; Batman; Wonder Woman; Elvis Presley; Pirates of the Caribbean; Flash; Green Lantern; Snoopy, Pokémon; Star Wars; Chronicles of Narnia; Cars; and The Matrix. The product range covers bags, wallets, jewelry, and clothing mainly following a retro design using leather as one of the main components. Smartwatches have been recently added to the portfolio. In the wearables market, the Gen 3 Sports Smartwatch is Fossil's main product.
Fossil Gen 3 smartwatch on display in Berlin Fossil shop Kurfürstendamm
What do fitness trackers measure
Fitness trackers have added to their functionalities over the years. Simply put the more you pay, the more functionality you get as with all gadgets. As smartwatches directly connect with your phone and therefore with the app market which offers unlimited functions, fitness trackers are having a harder time. It will be interesting to see how the wearable marketplace will develop over the next ten years. For now, if we limit ourselves to the classic fitness trackers, the core functions are tracking steps, sleep, heart rate, calories burned and weight.
Steps are what trackers started with. This is the most reliable function you will find with trackers. Based on the fact that 10.000 steps are recommended by the American Heart Association to maintain good healthy industry blossomed around tracking this goal.
Nowadays this function is integrated into most phones by default. You can argue accuracy being higher with specialized trackers.
Once sleep deprivation, deep sleep, and ideal windows to be waking up became a thing the gadget industry did not wait long to provide a corresponding feature.
Depending on the device and supplier you get graphics which tell you how healthy and how long you sleep.
This can be you used to actively work o sleeping longer and going to bed at the same time as our bodies di not respond well to ever-changing sleeping times and hours. Routine, as so often in fitness, is key.
The next feature of the higher priced widgets is measuring heart rate. In the past, you to be strapped into a big machine at a professional clinic to measure heart rate and VO2 max.
Modern technology first provided specialized heart rate monitors which you can strap to your body and now the next step is to make it even smaller and consolidate the function on your wrist.
The good news is that this simplifies and shrinks the function. The bad news is that most devices measure your heart rate optically. This is especially bad news for colored people or individuals with a lot of mass. For them optical devices to measure heart rate lead to subpar results even though algorithms are being improved.
Based on your activity levels, which are mostly steps, the little electronic helpers calculate an estimate of the calories burned.
With the more advanced ones you can also track your workouts and extreme sports based on what you buy.
Calorie tracking can also be combined with intake and meal plans in the most modern devices.
Weight is the last of the main components you can collect data about. This is either typed in manually into the accompanying app or tracked via special scales that can be connected.
With the scales, you are embarking on the cross-sell and upsell world of gadgetry. If you are a fan of the digitized you this is a good road to travel.
The study everyone talks about
The JAMA Study is the study which is cited the most in articles and blogs as the kiss of death to the use of fitness trackers.
In the two year study, 471 obese Individuals were given a simple fitness and diet plan. Six months into the study one half of them were given fitness trackers, the other continued without a device.
When the study finished the half of the group list on average 5 pounds more than the group which did use the fitness trackers.
For a lot of people, this seemed to be reason enough to label fitness trackers useless.
The accuracy discussion
When you wear six different trackers at the same time all of them will give you slightly or even vastly different results on what they are tracking.
As with all products which provide different outputs for the same input, confidence is destroyed by observations like this.
The producers usually go on to sweet talk the public that accuracy is not as important as the general trend of the data even though they happily advertise that you should buy their products to accurately measure your activities.
No wonder that consumers get frustrated by that cherry picking.
Inaccuracies can go back to individual differences which the one size fits all trackers have not been designed for like special heart conditions, different skin color and special use for consumers. Another root cause can also be that paying customers are being used as guinea pigs for Beta Versions.
The fad discussion
One of the main critical points about fitness trackers is that they are a fad. Interesting once, they soon disappear out of the life's of their owners after a short amount of time. Probably with fulfilling none of the benefits promised when they were bought. This might be due to the bad design of them or the right fit for the right customer.
People stop using trackers
Interestingly enough there is data to support that fitness trackers are not lifelong companions to make you strong like bull.
- In the U.K. 40% of users lose interest after six months
- In the US even 50% of users to lose interest
The reasons given For stopping to use fitness trackers are
- Reached their goal
- Got worn out by demands
- Got frustrated with inaccuracies
- Lost interest in fitness
- Finds tracker is more looks than substance
- Find it hard to match the band with their style
- Get frustrated by not being able to update the product without buying a new one
On top of this, the news that Jawbone is going out of business and TomTom is reassessing the wearables market is not creating confidence in businesses while reports of fitness trackers causing cancer question the viability of using one at its core.
How to determine whether a fitness tracker is useful
Questions to ask yourself whether a fitness tracker is useful
- Does the tracker make it more Likely that I take the desired action
- Does it give you the information you cannot obtain quicker otherwise
- Does it give you a real-time insight which you can act on
- On a scale of one to ten how fit are you?
- Do you like technology?
- Do you like data?
- Do you know how to interpret data?
- Do you want everything in one place?
In the end, it comes down to your needs. The less fit and self-driven you are and the better you respond to instructions the more likely it becomes that a fitness tracker is useful for you.
The more you obsess about data and keeping track the more fun you will get out of a device and therefore your money's worth.
A tool only comes useless, when you have no use for it, the make sure that you can get as much as possible out of your fitness tracker.
At the lower end of the spectrum, you will have the apps and functions which you can get
Depending on the phone they might not be as accurate as a dedicated, specialized Swiss Army knife, but smartphones get the job done for tracking steps and sleep. Add myfitnesspal into the mix and you have your substitute for getting the job done. In case you are interested there is also an interesting business theory which will make you think about your competition differently.
At the higher end for runners, Garmin watches are a great alternative. Garmin has been thinking about runners needs the longest in my opinion. Interval training, accurate heart rate measurements and your optimum stride become increasingly important when you want to run a faster marathon ( in that order ). Fitness trackers are too generalized and inaccurate to get that job done.
For strength training, it can become interesting to measure the velocity of how fast the bar moves. Absolute improvements become harder and harder the more advanced a lifter you are. With velocity based training you can measure whether you are moving the same, very heavy weight, faster. Another advantage of velocity based training is that you can work on your power output and specifically train on how fast you get to speed. This is especially relevant for sports like football and rugby.
For this purpose, you can use tools like the best sensor or the push band which are the most consumer friendly, but also least accurate solutions. The next level up is systems that let you attach a string to the barbell and then measure how fast and how far you moved the barbell over a certain distance. This is more accurate, but annoying to set up. The gold standard
Bottom line, the more advanced your training is the more advanced the equipment should become you use to track what you are doing. In that sense, fitness trackers are only an entry product which does everything, but in an inferior way.
The personal opinion piece on trackers
I personally own several fitness trackers and most of them do land in the drawer after 6 months. So my case reflects the general results of studies which are proclaimed in the press regarding how long they are used. So far I use / Have used
- Push Band
- Garmin Forerunner 220 including Heart rate monitor
- iPhone with Nike+ app (which is a fitness tracker)
- Fitbit Flex 2
- Fitbit Alta HR
All in all, I think fitness trackers are useful as long as you know how to use them and make a conscious effort to plan why you buy them. The conclusion that they are useless stems from people who do not know how to use them and blow their annoyance with them out of proportion. A good example of how misleading titles blame stupid human behavior on fitness trackers is the article "My Fitbit break up - I quit my Fitbit and got fitter" published in Abbey's kitchen.
While I do believe all of the information Abbey reports is truthful, the article is designed, as so many others, to influence you in a particular way. The title is clear click bait and misleading which primes you against fitness trackers. The misuse of the tool by Abbey only comes to light very late in the article. Most people do not even read that far.
She describes how she was already jogging and weightlifting before she was using a Fitbit. Both of those activities are in itself already more effective for weight loss than taking steps. Anyone with common sense knows this. Abbey then moves on to switch her time invested in running to walking to get more steps. She even goes that far to take shorter steps to get more in for the same distance. That is the equivalent of opening all the windows and turning the heating on at the same time. Just be as ineffective as possible to cover a certain distance. The communist regime would have been proud of Abbey.
In addition, she also seems to have switched off her brain in terms of calorie intake. She completely relied on the data the device provided. If you run less, walk more, do less weight training and eat more, of course, you are going to get fatter. That is not the fitbits fault, even though admittedly it nudged you in the wrong direction. A BMW with all bells and whistles to help you park cannot undo a driver stepping on the gas pedal crashing the car.
If Abbey had thought a bit more about which kind of activity would match her lifestyle she probably would have gotten a Garmin. She would have used it to monitor her runs and start intervals. This would have been wiser than buying a butter knife when a chainsaw is needed. If you buy the wrong tool for the job, you will always get inferior results.
From a personal level, we can also have a look at the "scientific" discussion and talk about the JAMA study. This is another example of the media hopping on one piece of research. blowing it out of proportion and not looking at the details. To start with you can not conclude from 471 individuals that fitness trackers are useless in all instances. To even go near a statement like that you need at least 2.500 randomly selected samples. Here we have a further point where you can not go from this study to the general public. By choosing only obese people for the study the selection is not random anymore, even though you narrowed it to the most relevant target group.
The nail in the coffin for this study is how the benefits of a fitness tracker were measured. The trackers were only introduced to the individuals after six months. The most beneficial habits for losing weight are already formed by this time (or not if you are undisciplined), especially if a fitness and dieting program has been introduced at the start of the 24-month study. Of course, a simple program of dieting and exercising regularly is more effective than wearing a fitness tracker. That is not the relevant question. The relevant question is how much more likely is an individual to adopt this regime when they use a tracker versus none. So this study was screwed up by design by handing the trackers out 6 months into the journey.
To put that into real-world terms for you. In six months using the Nike+ running up and my phone, I had lost 15kg and run a marathon after ten years of not exercising. The tracker definitely helped and I did not even change my dietary habits. Had you given me a Fitbit at the finish line of the Dublin marathon (6 months into me getting fit again, like in the study) when I had my Garmin forerunner 220 on my wrist with the words "and now we will see whether this makes you fitter" it would have been nothing but bizarre. How can such a study design be useful and then, on top of that, be broadcast to the public under headlines like "Sorry, your fitness tracker is probably useless".
Last but not least the accuracy discussion. First of all, for consumer purposes, it is important, if you use your brain a little and double check numbers and outcomes, that the tools you use are relatively correct in what they measure rather than absolutely. This means that the tracker should show that you are improving or worsening compared to a baseline you have set at the start. It is far less important whether the baseline that was set is absolutely correct. Absolute measurements and accuracy become more important the more specialized and advanced you become. But then you also have to bite the bullet that you have to pay more for a more precise tool. To expect nanosecond precision from a tool that you can obtain for under 50 bucks in any electronics shop is unrealistic.
Use the right tool for the right purpose. Fitness trackers come in all shapes and forms and the market will grow. Good news for consumers which means more functionality and precision at a lower price are in stock in the future. The wristbands are a good fit for anyone who is starting out on their fitness journey and wants to get moving. When you already run regularly and want to improve your times and fitness even further, opt for a mid-range Garmin model to up your game. If you are into weight training, forget about the wristbands and get a specialized device for that purpose. Pay attention to what you measure. If you do nothing measuring steps is a good start. If you run it makes sense to measure how fast you run to get more out of your workouts.
By thinking before you purchase you make sure that you make a useful decision with your money. If you buy a fitness tracker to look cool, go with the trend or impress your partner, expect to be disappointed.
I still use my Alta HR as an alarm clock to wake up in the mornings without waking my wife to hit the gym at 6 am. This alone makes it a useful fitness tool, as otherwise, I would have to discuss with my wife each evening when I will get up and feel bad about going to the gym that early.
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- No fitness trackers are not a fad, here is why you should double down on your data
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- JAMA study says fitness trackers are useless
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- I was a professional athlete and fitness trackers are completely useless to me
- Why getting paid could be the future of fitness tracking
- Fitness trackers may not aid weight loss, study finds
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- My Fitbit breakup - I quit my fitness tracker and got fitters tracker and got fitter