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Can Fitness Trackers Improve Your Workout?

Things like wearable-real time heart rate monitors were, until fairly recently, things that doctors or personal trainers were likely to introduce you to. Now, pretty robust fitness trackers are some of the most familiar wearable technology out there. But, can they improve your workout routine?

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Understanding Fitness Trackers

Before we get into how fitness trackers might (or might not) impact your workout routine, let’s take a quick look at what today’s wearables are capable of. 

First, off, there are dedicated fitness trackers that can be stand-alone devices or connect to a smartphone for some uses. These devices are usually cheaper, starting at under $100. They used to be the better option, but now smartwatches these days may be even better – even though they’re also more expensive and require high-end phones.

Samsung’s most recent Galaxy watches can detect your VO2 Max, and the current line of Apple Watch can tell you how many calories you’re (probably) burning. Both can also estimate how long you sleep and the quality of sleep that you’re getting (but, sleep tracking is another article). Both of these watches ring up at over $200.

Different fitness trackers work differently, and of course different readings are taken in different ways. Their measurement of things like heart rate and blood oxygen levels are pretty advanced. For example, Apple Watches determine your blood oxygen level using different wavelengths of light and recording the wavelengths that reflect back into the watch from your arm.

Calorie counters and sleep trackers, on the other hand, are arguably pretty basic, using the watch’s movement to estimate your activity level. You can probably do just as well by yourself by looking up the average energy expenditure for whatever activity you’re doing and factoring in the time that you spend doing it.

So, what are some of the pros and cons of fitness trackers in your workout?

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Biggest Benefits of Fitness Trackers

As we’ve seen, fitness trackers can cost a nice chunk of change. For that price, there are some pretty handy things that they can do.

They Provide Information

The biggest benefits of fitness trackers come from the information that they provide. Things like heart rate, and calories burned can all be invaluable information. That’s particularly true if you’re into biotracking to quantify the success of your workout. For example, some fitness folks like to have specific target heart rates in mind, particularly for cardio exercises like running.

There is also some information that these fitness trackers provide that you don’t need 24-hour access to but you might not have any real access to without a fitness tracker. For example, your blood oxygen level doesn’t necessarily change over the course of a workout but without your own tech you can’t access this information outside of a doctor’s office.

Boatloads of Biometrics

Most fitness trackers don’t just keep count of numbers that we often associate with “fitness.” They also keep track of numbers that we associate with “wellness,” including helping you understand how long and how well you sleep.

Sleep is such a huge part of your overall health and wellness, but it’s something that so many of us are willing to compromise on when other things get in the way. Fitness trackers that also track sleep can help you better understand your sleep patterns and how your sleep affects other aspects of your life. Some even work with apps that recommend ways to improve your sleep. 

Not all sleep trackers are also fitness trackers, and not all sleep trackers require a smartwatch or other wearable tech, so to some degree they’re kind of their own beasts. But don’t worry, fitness trackers are so interesting that there is a dedicated sleep tracker article on the schedule here at HTBM, so keep checking back if you want to learn more.

Tech Trackers Health Biometrics

Reminders and Mindfulness

One of the best things about fitness trackers might be more psychological than anything: they can help you to keep fitness on your mind. Even when you aren’t working out, seeing your fitness tracker and its various biometric displays can help you to think about health during your day.

Who knows, seeing those numbers throughout the day might make you think to make little changes like taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work or reaching for healthier snacks at home.

For some people too, a fitness tracker can incorporate accountability and signal a commitment. If you’re just starting a fitness journey, buying a fitness tracker might help you to stick to the resolution that you made to be healthier.

Reasons You Don’t “Need” a Fitness Tracker

Most of the “drawbacks” of fitness trackers aren’t really “drawbacks” – just the availability of easy and more affordable alternatives.

You Don’t Need Expensive Tech to Check Your Pulse…

One great example of this is your pulse. Fitness trackers can help you keep track of your heart rate, but it’s also not difficult or time-consuming to check your pulse without them.

One tried-and-true method is to take the index and middle fingers of your right hand and place them gently along the left side of your neck, just under your jaw. You might have to move your fingers around a little bit until you get used to it, but you should be able to feel your pulse here pretty well. With your other wrist, use your dumb-watch to keep time.

You can count out the exact number of beats per minute, but you can also take your pulse for a fraction of a minute and multiply to make up the difference. Your pulse in thirty seconds multiplied by two, or in twenty seconds multiplied by three. You can break it down even further if you’re in a hurry, but more you round the less accurate your reading is.

If you’re curious, this works so well because you just put your fingers over your carotid artery. In addition to being one of your biggest arteries and being relatively close to the skin, this artery branches directly off of the vena cava of the heart.

Manually Counting Calories

… or Count Calories

The calorie counters in fitness trackers are handy for helping you keep things like energy expenditure in focus. However, calorie counters are also on the list of things that existed before smart watches and fitness trackers. At least, they exist on paper.

The calorie counters in fitness trackers don’t work by using fancy tech to measure the rate at which your body is metabolising glucose or anything like that. They use movement measurements to estimate how much energy your body is using to do whatever you’re doing for however long you do it for.

Open up your favorite fitness book, and they probably have tables of how much energy your body uses to do a certain activity based on how much you weigh. Two of our favorites at HTBM is found in Nutrition for Sport and Exercise.  There’s one more general table that can be applied to just about any activity (p. 54) and one specific table just for running (p. 182).

These tables usually give you figures in the form of “calories burned per kilogram of body weight per hour of activity.” So, you plug in the time spent doing the activity and multiply that by your body weight to figure out the calories burned. If you want to go a step further, you have to use about 3500 calories to lose one pound of fat.

This seems like a lot of math, but once you do it for a while, it becomes second nature. If you’re one of those big biostat people, you might prefer to do your own math anyway.

A Point in the Air

There is one element of the fitness tracker movement that might not be universally good or bad, and that’s the always-on nature.

We mentioned above that fitness trackers can help people keep their fitness in mind – and that’s true, they can. However, this isn’t always a good thing. Some people already have unhealthy preoccupation with their wellness, and fitness trackers can make this worse. Other people may currently have a healthy relationship with fitness and a tracker can change that.

Have you ever bought stocks or a cryptocurrency? Do you remember the first week or so after your first purchase? Were you constantly checking prices wondering what you should do? Fitness trackers can become a version of that.

Constantly having fitness stats in front of your eyes can help you to think about your fitness but it can also prevent you from thinking about anything else. We’ve already touched on the idea that fitness and wellness aren’t exactly the same thing and worrying too much about your physical health can negatively impact other areas of your life.

If this happens to you, hopefully it will be like that first time that you bought stocks or crypto: after a week or so you realise that some days are better than others and that’s okay as long as you end up better than where you started. In the meantime, however, this can be stressful.

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Are Fitness Trackers Right for You?

There are some areas in which fitness trackers just can’t be beat. They provide access to information that we didn’t use to have, and they provide it in an always-on-way. However, they don’t have a monopoly on this information, and they ways in which they present that information may not be right for everyone.

In the end, whether a fitness tracker will improve your workout depends on how you approach your workout and your life in general.

Further Reading

Dunford, Marie & Doyle, Andrew J. “Nutrition for Sport and Exercise.” Thomson Wadsworth. Belmont, CA, USA. 2008.

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