Is there anyone who’s not wearing a fitness band or competing with friends or office workers on how many steps they’ve taken that day? In light of that, the new Apple watch and FitBit filing to go public, we wanted to look back on what Well-Being editor Mary Carpenter had to say about this technology in April 2014. See her story below.
WHEN WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY began appearing on the wrists of “early adopters”–people who buy new gadgets hot off the design table– they looked only slightly lovelier than black carpel tunnel braces, and they caught on slowly. Still, in 2013, Americans paid about $290 million to sport the devices.
A recent Wall Street Journal article described more fashionable models of metric-collecting bracelets in gold, silver and black, but some believe that wearing any tracking band is sufficiently appealing because it demonstrates your commitment to fitness.
The jury is out on how well fitness bands work. Activity trackers rely on an accelerometer, usually combined with a website or app to produce data collected about your movements–from intensive exercise to cooking–as well as measurements of your downtimes and often of your sleep patterns.
For walking, the devices assess the number of steps taken and then use your estimate of stride length to determine your daily achievement. But taking shorter or longer strides can lead to faulty readings. Blogger Albert Sun also notes that the trackers don’t measure fidgeting, while some research suggests that fidgeting can keep you lean. (A 10th-grader I know figured out a way to rack up steps by moving her arm around while lying in bed.)
Reacting to another criticism–that activity trackers measure movement but not exertion–manufacturers point out that intense exercise is only a small part of the wearer’s day, while the bands measure all additional activity. A study at Arizona State University found the trackers least successful at measuring subtle movements–light pedaling on a stationary bike, sweeping the floor–and very effective only at measuring brisk walking or jogging. Sun found the bands most useful for comparing activity on different days: After 16,000 steps on some weekend days, seeing only “6,000 or 7,000 on a typical workday made me work harder to move more” on those days, he reported.
For assessing sleep, some say the devices are prone to mistakes, and that they cannot measure deep sleep versus the lighter states. Critics argue that a band’s assessment might lead to missing serious problems because they are less accurate than hospital sleep labs. On the positive side, a band’s record of excessive movement during the night can indicate that a more professional evaluation is needed.
What might be most useful is to reveal how little a person has been sleeping, which can motivate them to get more sleep. “A lot of people are more sleep-deprived than they realize,” says Dr. David Claman, director of the sleep disorders center at the UCSF Medical Center.
According to its manufacturers, the Jawbone band with its “today I will” feature got 72 percent of wearers going to bed early enough to achieve their goals, and 26 percent were more likely to get seven to eight hours of sleep than those who hadn’t set goals.
Experts agree that people should wear trackers until they have assessed and learned to combat bad habits. After trying out many models for his blog, Sun said, “I’ve become keenly aware of how active I am…I don’t need a monitor anymore. I’m tracking me.” Dr. Albert Kamal Jethwani, head of research at Boston’s Center for Connected Health, agrees that the goal is to “wear it when it’s meaningful,” when bad habits begin creeping in.
The center’s study, which followed subjects wearing trackers over six to nine months and then assessed changes in behavior, found that: For about 10 percent of users, the bands’ numbers motivated them to become more active; for 20 to 30 percent, additional encouragement from friends or health professionals was needed to change their behavior; for the rest, the data were confusing and “social motivation” from friends or teammates might work better, according to Dr. Jethmani. A review of studies on the bands showed that those who benefit most from trackers are athletes–those who need the least encouragement–to create training regimens or recovery programs for team sports.
For me, the main drawback is that friends who wear these bands check them frequently and turn to them to make decisions. For example, based on how many more steps are needed to achieve their daily goal, they’ll choose a restaurant–not always my top criterion for eating out. On the other hand, I could really use the “inactivity alert”: Getting up every hour or so from the computer to stretch, lie down and do a few exercises is recommended for almost everyone, especially when dealing with physical issues from poor posture to arthritis.
How to choose which fitness tracker is best for you? (Very high ratings go to the Fitbit Force, but that has been recalled due to reports of allergic reactions to the band.) The Basis models often get highest marks because of the heart monitor, but that interests me less than other variables: ease of syncing, battery life and price. (I would love waterproof, but among the highly rated models, that leaves me with the Misfit Wearables Shine disc , while I prefer wristbands.)
After reading and comparing, I would choose the Fitbit One. My friend who owns one complains that it came with no directions, and its two wristbands soon broke–although the company did send her another one –but she likes the motivation and positive reinforcement. When she reaches her daily goal of 10,000 steps, the band buzzes. I might prefer a different reward.