There was a time in the not-so-distant past when you wouldn’t find the term wearable fitness defined anywhere (gasp!). Nike’s Fuelband, the FitBit, and apps that tracked everything from your breathing to your diet were still just ideas in the heads of fitness and health scientists. Mood rings and Livestrong bracelets were the closest we came to making statements about our body. But today? You’re hard pressed to find a naked wrist (or ankle, or chest, or neck) in the gym. Today? Fitness trackers have become part of our daily wardrobe, and the numbers they spew out? Those are sometimes the figures we base our health off of.
In fact, a recent survey by the NPD Group reports that 58 percent of women reported intending to buy one of these devices. The most sought after features: counting calories and tracking the number of steps taken in a day, the survey found. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what this technology can do.
Why Fitness Trackers Work
The reaped benefits of these products are a no-brainer. “Research has shown that if you want to stick to a new habit, monitoring is one of the best ways to make a change,” says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Since these devices have eliminated the burden of having to physically keep track of everything yourself, monitoring is easier than ever, he says. And it works: A recent study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine showed that people who wore pedometers spent less time sitting, more time being active, and lost more weight than those who didn’t sport the device.
Tracking also brings you back to reality. Because, really, even if it feels like you had to walk 10 miles to make that appointment after an unsuccessful hunt for a cab, you probably didn’t. “When you look at self-estimates on questionnaires, people tend to overestimate how much activity they’re getting and underestimate how many calories they’re eating,” says John Raglin, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Indiana University. “With more objective information, you can get more specific about the changes you need to make.”
As with most things in life—healthy habits included!—moderation can become lost, spiraling you somewhere not so pretty, if you rely too much on a gadget. Klapow’s even coined a term to describe the trap he’s witnessed many people falling into: over-monitoring syndrome. “You can get so caught up in tracking that it overtakes you emotionally and psychologically,” he says. “Over-tracking syndrome can be problematic when the behavior you’re trying to engage in becomes secondary to the numbers.” What that means: You may lose site of overall goals (improved fitness or weight loss) in favor of meeting a steps-per-day goal. And while, sure, making 10,000 steps a day is great, if it’s keeping you out of the gym (and not necessarily helping you boost your cardiovascular fitness), you could become a slave to the wrong figures.
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Devices can even interfere with—instead of help—your workout. “I’ve noticed students bring their phones and in between sets, sit down, and seven or eight minutes go by before they get up again,” he says. “Even if they’re entering information into a fitness-tracking app, they’re still getting distracted and not working out as hard as they could. In my opinion, it makes your workout an incomplete experience.” Tracking every little thing every single day can take a toll on your emotions too because—as any athlete knows—conditions change day-to-day. “You may get out there and plan to do a certain workout, but because you’re tired, or sore, or you didn’t eat enough you’re not able to hit your goal for that day,” Raglin says. Even more: “Progress isn’t linear,” Raglin adds. “But if you’re always looking at your numbers, you’re going to want them to improve every time and that’s not always going to happen.”
Make Trackers Work for You
Instead of monitoring to monitor (hey, these fitness trackers ain’t cheap!), make sure you’re clear about your goals. Write them down and then decide which metrics are most important to track to help you meet your goals. And instead of using fewer features, Klapow actually recommends getting familiar with more metrics. Today, so many devices are multi-taskers (they have to be to stay competitive in the market) so select a device that tracks more information such as a FitBit instead of a simple pedometer. And then use as many metrics as you can. Klapow says he sees people get too caught up in the steps and calories and neglect to look at all of other useful information. So see what your heart rate and blood pressure are doing or whether your sleep habits have changed. If you’re not seeing as much progress as you’d like on the scale, witnessing changes in other areas can give you a better picture of your overall health—and catch underlying issues.
Finally, Raglin suggests only using your device every few weeks. (If you’re training for a race you may want to use it more regularly to make sure you’re hitting certain benchmarks, but for general fitness you don’t have to sport it every day.) After all, if you didn’t sleep well chances are you’ll feel tired—you don’t need your wearable to tell you that you only slept for four hours. Using it for one week every month allows you to check in with yourself and make sure you’re on the right path.Your body is still the very best tool you have for telling you when you’re eating well, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, able to lift heavier or push harder, and ready to reach for a new goal, Raglin says.