Fitness trackers are aimed at the fit and healthy, not at those that really need them

Could fitness trackers be more of a hindrance than a help to your health?

Fitness trackers are great aren’t they? Just strap one to your wrist and they will tell you everything from how many steps you climbed to how many calories you burned and how many hours sleep you got. They will change your life for the better. You will exercise more, eat less and sleep more soundly.

Well, at least that is what companies like Fitbit, Jawbone and Misfit want you to believe, but as a study published this week shows, that is not necessarily the case.

Over the course of two years, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh monitored 470 overweight or obese people aged 18 to 35. Everyone was put on a low calorie diet, given an exercise regime and invited to attend group sessions to help them lose weight. Six months into the study, half of the participants were also given a fitness tracker.

The result? The half that didn’t have a fitness tracker lost more weight - and the difference was not minimal. The group using fitness trackers lost an average of 7.7lbs while the group without them lost almost double that, 13lbs.

The researchers in this study have been at pains to point out that this is far from conclusive proof that fitness trackers are useless, and there were some issues with how they type of tracker used (it was an old arm-mounted device) but the results do serve to highlight some of the big problems with these devices.

If you look at any advert for a fitness tracker or even a sports-focused smart watch, such as the new Apple Watch, you will never see an obese person. You never even see an overweight person. All you see are tanned and toned models in peak physical condition, people who are already clearly into fitness and for whom a fitness tracker acts like a affirmation that they are doing well.

“You walked 50,453,543 steps today, well done.” Messages like this are brilliant if you are active and like being told you are great but for people who are not into health and fitness but trying to make a change, getting a message like “You walks 6 steps today’ is not going to help motivate them.

This was backed up by Dr. John Jakicic who organized the research at the University of Pittsburgh. “These are people who are already struggling, and already don’t like activity. They look down and see, ‘I am so far away from my goal today, I can’t do it.’ It could be working against them,” Jakicic told Time.

Fitness trackers exploded onto the market in the last few years pushed by companies as the ultimate accessory for your smartphone, giving you the ability to constantly monitor your activity, log your food intake and share all these details with family and friends on social media.

As the trackers became more sophisticated they added features like sleep tracking, heart rate sensing and calorie counting, all designed to give you a more rounded, holistic view of your health.

The problem however is that in most cases customers were being oversold what a fitness tracker could actually do. All trackers essentially work the same way. They all feature a 3-axis accelerometer to track movement in every direction while some feature a gyroscope to measure orientation and rotation.

Data from these sensors are collected and converted into steps and activity. This is all fine and reasonably accurate, but from here things get a bit hazy.

To give you sleep and calorie data, the trackers use the activity information and use broad algorithms to estimate the other figures, and it is hard to know how close to the real figure these devices are giving users.

Sleep tracking may be able to tell you when you woke up or were restless at night, but without real insight as to why, it cannot improve your sleep patterns. Calorie counting is the same with inaccurate information about how many calories you have eaten/burned possibly doing more damage than no information at all.

Fitness trackers can be a hugely beneficial tool for people who are looking to lose weight and get fit. But if the companies who make them really want to help overweight and obese people, they need to change the way they devices are marketed, manage expectations to be more realistic and offer a level of motivations which will keep people using them for as long as they need them.