There is never a shortage of fitness “crazes”.  Every year, there is some exercise more “in” than the year before.  The same is certainly true of diets.  And in our pursuit of the quick fix, we go out and buy the latest diet book because we figure this time it will really “work”.  Many times, it’s a piece of exercise equipment that we are sure is the answer to our health and weight loss, so we run out and spend a lot of money, for what ends up being a tie rack.  But sometimes, a new “craze” can have real value.  Over the last few years, different types of fitness trackers, as well as the ability to record our food intake digitally, have become immensely popular. The question is, how effective is this in helping us reach our individual goals and improving our health?

Fitness trackers come in all different shapes, sizes and methods.  An estimated 19 million devices were in use in 2014, and that number is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. In fact, a recent report by Juniper Research predicts that the use of activity trackers—also called fitness wear-ables—will triple by 2018.

Let’s take a look at the basic types of trackers and what they do.

Types of Trackers

Bands

A fitness band fits around your wrist like a bracelet. Bands that wrap around your wrist are by far the most common type of tracker today. They are small and relatively unobtrusive.  Many are made out of a rubberized material that are resistant to water and comfortable to wear.  If the band has a display it will be small, but it’s good for fitness tracking.

Most bands are fancy pedometers – they just keep track of the number of steps you take each day. However, a few include additional features like continuous heart rate tracking and wake up alarms.

Watchesfintess watch

The next most common type of tracker still wraps around your wrist, but looks much more like a digital watch than just a band of rubber. Since these trackers are larger, they are often capable of tracking a few more fitness metrics and not just steps. They can track your heart rate and perspiration and like any watch they can tell you what time it is.

Clothes

Some fitness tracking companies have woven the sensors needed to keep track of your health into fabric that you can wear these are known as smart textiles. The big benefit of a shirt wrapped around your upper body is that it can track a great many things: steps, heart rate, depth and frequency of breaths, perspiration and skin temperature. These fitness metrics are much harder to capture with a device that’s only around your wrist.  These are more expensive.

Ear Phones/Head Phones

If you already wear headphones while you work out then your next pair may be able to play music AND keep track of your fitness. Also called “hearables” these keep track of your heart rate and breathing rate along with other fitness metrics. In addition, headphonesthe ear may be a more accurate location for a step counter, since it doesn’t swing around as much as your wrist does. All wrist-mounted pedometers have to know the difference between a “step” and a “non-step” motion of your arm, and this can lead to false positives (steps counted that aren’t really steps).

Phone Apps

There are literally hundreds of trackers that can be used as applications from cellular phones. Not every application works well for every phone, but they can track your steps, stairs and distance with fairly good accuracy.  With these apps as well as the other types of trackers mentioned, it pays to do your research on how accurate testing has shown them to be.

Is it worthwhile?

Older research might give us an insight as to whether or not a fitness tracking device is going to be helpful.  Many different studies have shown the positive effects of writing down your food.  Whereas weight loss experts may differ in what the best approach is in weight loss, they ALL agree about the value of food tracking. food journalAny of you who have been on a comprehensive weight loss program (not a diet) know that writing down your food daily is almost a sure-fire method to success.  And that success isn’t just the number on the scale, it’s also helping you to be mindful of your eating and change bad habits into good ones.  Accountability in your exercise and activity will also breed these types of results.  Imagine that you set a goal of 10,000 steps per day for activity, or doing a certain distance daily at an aerobic pace.  At the end of each day, you will know quickly if you are meeting your goals or not and what changes you might have to make in order to attain your fitness goals.

The American Council of Exercise under the supervision Caitlin M. Stackpool, M.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Richard Mikat, Ph.D., Cordial Gillette, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D. ran a small study on popular fitness trackers and their accuracy.   For this study, five popular activity trackers were chosen: Nike+ Fuelband ($99-$149), Fitbit Ultra ($99), Jawbone UP ($99), BodyMedia FitCore ($99) and the Adidas MiCoach ($199).

Researchers recruited 10 healthy men and 10 healthy women, ages 18 to 44, to participate in the study, which was divided into two parts: one to measure energy expenditure and the other to measure the number of steps taken. The protocol was the same for both studies and they were conducted concurrently.

The first session included walking and running on a level treadmill. Each subject walked at a self-selected speed for 20 minutes and then rested for 10 minutes before running for 20 minutes at a self-selected pace. The second session was completed on an elliptical cross-trainer that worked both the arms and legs; participants completed 20 minutes of exercise at a self-selected intensity. After a break, subjects performed sports-related exercises. After completing both sessions, the values were recorded from each device and compared to an accompanying portable metabolic analyzer energy expenditure values and the number of steps taken.

tracking stepsWhen it comes to tracking steps, the activity trackers were pretty reliable, with the accuracy depending on the type of exercise being done. All five devices predicted within 10 percent accuracy the number of steps taken during treadmill walking and running, as well as during elliptical exercise.

Given the accuracy of fitness tackers, the convenience of wearing them, and the awareness they create, this “fitness craze” might just “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”