Fitness trackers have gotten some negative press lately, raising questions about whether they truly deliver on their promise of better health and medical-cost savings.
Most recently, Stanford cardiologist Euan Ashley and a few of his colleagues took a close look at the performance of seven of the most popular trackers and compared their accuracy to the in-office tests that doctors use.
The trackers, they found, were mostly accurate when it came to measuring heart rates. However, when it came to measuring how many calories a person burned, the findings were way off, with a degree of inaccuracy ranging from 20 percent to 93 percent. In other words, in 93 percent of the time, the worst-performing device was very, very wrong.
That, according to Louisiana State University Dr. Tim Church, suggests “people are checking these inaccurate counts and they think they’ve earned a muffin or earned some ice cream and they’re sabotaging their weight-loss program.”
Perhaps worse still, in another study last year, researchers found that dieters using wearable fitness trackers experienced 50 percent less weight loss over a two-year period than those who didn’t. “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches,” the researchers said.
Bad news for trackers, right? Maybe, maybe not.
For starters, there’s plenty of evidence that trackers help employers engage employees in company health and wellness programs.
Millions of Americans today use trackers. Trackers allow people to connect with their co-workers, friends and family for a source of support and encouragement. They also encourage friendly competition to out-step and out-perform others within a social network.
Trackers also have proven useful in disease management. For example, roughly three-quarters of those who use their trackers to help them manage heart conditions say their devices are making a difference, according to a survey by HealthMine, a Texas healthcare technology company.
As Ashley points out, his team’s findings don’t actually suggest tossing out your trackers; the research merely underscores the importance of understanding that trackers give only “rough estimates.”
Part of the problem might be in less-reliable machines. But the problem also is that metabolism is so different from person to person. The number of calories you might burn in a short jog vs. someone else also can vary greatly based on gender, age, height and weight. Trackers just don’t factor in those differences.
In the final analysis, fitness trackers remain a great way to track your activity. On the other hand, while your device might say you burned 900 calories, that doesn’t mean that an entire pizza should be on the dinner menu.
Scott Kennedy, president and COO of CCIG, has more than 30 years of insurance and risk management experience.
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