Find the Best Activity Tracker for You
Not long ago, if you wanted to track your activity at a fancy affair, you’d have to clip a pedometer to your waistband. Thankfully, today’s activity trackers blur the line between fashion accessory and health monitoring device.
While trackers vary in appearance and features, their goals are the same: to help you boost activity and lose or maintain weight. But whether you’ll respond to these techniques isn’t so clear-cut.
While activity-tracking devices don’t work as well for weight loss as weekly weigh-ins with a trained professional, they can help you establish a baseline for activity, says Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, particularly if you have no idea how much you’re moving on a daily basis. Trackers provide self-monitoring and feedback, two important factors in weight-loss success—at least in the short-term. And many trackers offer apps to help you succeed. Extra features include social support, goal-setting, and the ability to plan workouts.
Tracking activity is useful for diabetes management, too. Users can compare their activity levels on days when their blood glucose is in range with levels on out-of-range days to see how activity affects their blood glucose, says John Jakicic, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Health and Physical Activity and director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
When it comes to activity trackers, one size doesn’t fit all. Some people may seek out something competitive (like the app Zombies, Run!, which turns an ordinary workout into a game of survival). Some might prefer to get social with a group. And others may want to journal on their own. Buying a tracker may not even be necessary: Apple and Google each have an app that uses a phone’s motion sensor to track steps—a fine choice for someone who wants a no-frills tracker.
1. Fun With Friends
Social features play a big role when it comes to sticking with activity trackers, says Elizabeth Lyons, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch. The main commercial tracker brands allow you to connect with other users, exchange in-app messages and notes of encouragement, challenge others to hit step goals, and compare your weekly totals with those of your friends. When Lyons and her team analyzed trackers’ features, they found that Jawbone and Fitbit offered the most social opportunities in their apps.
2. Activity Specific
Before you buy a tracker, make sure it can accurately quantify your preferred activities. The Misfit is the only waterproof tracker, so swimmers have one choice, says Lyons. Other monitors, such as the Atlas wristband, specifically track weight-lifting activity but not lifestyle activities, such as walking.
3. New Ways to Log Food
Several activity trackers have integrated food logs or sync with popular apps to record your meals—a habit, studies show, that’s helpful when combined with setting calorie goals. Maintaining a food journal can be tedious. But many trackers and apps have found new ways to capture the information. Now you can scan bar codes, search through food listings, and create frequent meals that can be quickly added to your daily log.
4. Fashion Forward
Consider how the tracker looks and how you plan to wear it. Colberg-Ochs says she prefers not to wear something around her wrist; for her, a tracker that clips to clothing would be best. After trying out 19 different monitors for her analysis, Lyons stuck with the Apple Watch, while her colleagues chose different favorites.
Roadblocks to Use
Many people have “shiny object syndrome”—an attraction to new technology that they never integrate into their lives. Loss of interest is the biggest threat to long-term use of activity trackers. “It’s really easy to ignore after a while,” says Lyons. “If you just don’t check the app even if you’re wearing [the tracker], it’s not on the forefront of your mind.”
On the flip side, people can be so tuned in to their trackers that they note every missed goal—and that can really impact their mood. “What you don’t want is for people to say, ‘I just spent $200 on this thing and, forget it, I’m throwing it in a drawer and I’m never using it again,’ ” Jakicic says.
From Elizabeth Lyons, PhD: When shopping for a tracker, consider the lower-end version of whichever brand you prefer—and buy two! That way you can give one to a friend for some built-in motivation.
Breathe a sigh of relief: Most name-brand activity trackers are relatively accurate in terms of step counting—within about 10 percent of a research-grade monitor, says Elizabeth Lyons, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch. And while there is a margin of error, it’s more likely a tracker would underreport rather than overreport, says Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Counts for calories burned and active minutes (time spent doing moderate to vigorous activity) may be less precise. Calorie inaccuracies have more to do with people being unaware of how much they really weigh, says Lyons. A lot of activity trackers calculate burned calories based on a person’s weight. But it’s only accurate if you’ve entered the correct weight.
“I would actually trust calories before I would trust [active] minutes,” says Lyons. That’s because the devices track lower-body movement rather than full-body movement. So playing tennis, rowing, cycling, and other activities may not register correctly on your tracker.
Future of Trackers
When doctors hand out simple pedometers to their patients, exercise increases for three to six months, says John Jakicic, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Health and Physical Activity and director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. But take a step into the future, where activity trackers may:
Sync with electronic medical records so your doctor could see your progress and discuss it with you at your next appointment.
Aid the artificial pancreas with algorithm feedback to account for exercise and help the system make automatic adjustments to the insulin it doles out.
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