Look at Life: Fitness Trackers

18th May 2018

You'll Never Walk Alone

By Heather Harris

10,000 steps a day. That’s all it takes to get fit. Oh, and a measuring device strapped to a moving part of our body – ideally the wrist, although I have been tempted to put it on the dog.

After all, imagine if we had to count that many steps in our head… ‘9,926 – 9,927 – oh no, lost count – 1, 2, 3…’

Luckily, since 2014, wearable fitness trackers have kept us one step ahead in the fitness game. No longer just content to count our recommended five fruit and veg a day, keep up with our 20 minute exercise sessions three times a week and monitor our 2,000-daily calorie intake – now we’re told how much to move.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t need a piece of ‘wearable technology’ to buzz at me to tell me I’ve been sitting too long. Pins and needles and a distinct numbness in my left buttock have been doing this adequately for the past 54 years.

But, apparently, I’m in the minority. Statistics suggest that the number of ‘connected wearable devices’ worldwide (ranging from £40 to over £400) is expected to jump from 325 million last year to over 830 million in 2020.

Clearly, I am out of step with how modern man (and woman) chooses to keep fit. As James Park and Eric Friedman, founders of industry leader Fitbit, explain, ‘fitbit tracks every part of your day to help you stay motivated and see how small steps make a big impact.’

The problem is the 10,000 steps target (roughly five miles a day), which all these fitness trackers have as their default goal, has no scientific research behind it.

It actually originated in Japan in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Pedometers became all the rage and one company came out with a device called a manpo-kei, which translates as ‘10,000 steps meter’. It was a business slogan like Just Do It for Nike, “but it resonated with people,” explains tracker guru Professor Catrine Tudor-Locke, from Louisiana State University. However, there’s one very obvious problem as our very own home-grown expert, Dale Eslinger from Loughborough University, points out. “If you’ve got short or long legs there are differences there. Also, a device on your wrist recording motion in your legs is not infallible. Some of the 10,000 steps might include you bending down to tie your shoelaces.” (Or presumably walking to the fridge and making yourself a bacon sandwich.)

Researchers running a study on how fitness trackers promote weight loss, found they’d rather put their foot in it when the results were announced. In a group of 470 people, half were asked to self-regulate their diet and exercise, and half were given fitness trackers to monitor their activity. After two years, both groups were equally active, but those with the fitness trackers lost less weight. (7.7 pounds versus an impressive 13 pounds).

Psychologists were quickly shoe-horned in to explain the possible reasons. “These technologies are focussed on steps and getting your heart rate up,” health and physical activity expert John Jakicic explains. “People think they’ve exercised a lot so can eat more. And they might eat more than they otherwise would have!”

He also added that meeting daily fitness goals might motivate one person, but demotivate another – and have them heading for the sofa and a consoling bar of Dairy Milk.

And that’s my problem – just as I’m determined to outsmart my sat nav by taking a short cut, I found I wanted to cheat my Fitbit (see previous comment about putting it on the dog).

I should at this point ask my friend, Nick, to step forward. A 60 year-old big (physically and metaphorically) wig in the hospitality industry, weight has always been an issue for him… until he and a work colleague each bought a Garmin (another tracker, like those from Apple and Samsung, snapping at the heels of Fitbit’s market share).

“We’re both competitive, so every day we aimed to outstep each other. One morning I got up at 6am and walked 13 miles just to get ahead of my daily quota!” confesses Nick. Leap forward six months and both men have lost a significant amount of weight – in Nick’s case an incredible five stones.
And that’s where these devices come into their own: when they’re worn by naturally competitive and driven people who want to get fit. Market research also highlights that people who buy fitness trackers tend to buy other sports equipment and technology too.

The rest of us will continue to self-regulate by relying on the ‘catching the sight of ourselves sideways in a shop window method’ to encourage us to hotfoot it to the gym – or at least to the staircase instead of the lift.

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