Are fitness trackers really helpful?

Associated Press

Fitness tracking monitors promise to lead to all sorts of results: You’ll melt off fat just by monitoring your steps; eat better by tracking your food intake; get better sleep.

But the fitness devices can cost as much as hundreds of dollars, and often aren’t as helpful as users hope they will be. Consumers should consider carefully whether a fitness monitor is worth the purchase, researchers advise in a Harvard Health Publications report.

Cost of the fitness devices typically increases with the number of features available, but those amenities are usually unnecessary, researchers said.

Although some monitors offer measurements you typically get in a doctor’s office, such as blood pressure or heart rate, experts said the most important feature of such a device is monitoring physical activity: steps taken daily or calories burned from a workout.


“People end up falling for a lot of bells and whistles, when it is often the simple feedback that is most helpful,” said Dr. Jennifer M. Sacheck, associate professor at Tuft’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “Be realistic in terms of budget, time needed to engage, and ease of wear and use.”

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Researchers recommend first deciding what you want out of a monitor. Instead of relying solely on a tracker to change your fitness lifestyle, consumers should set their fitness goals first and then use the monitors to help them achieve those goals.

For example, if you’d like to walk more, and your doctor recommends taking 10,000 steps a day, you can use a simple step monitor to track how many steps you’re currently taking. You can then set intermediate goals to increase your number of steps per day, and use the monitor to help you determine how close you are to achieving that goal.


But if you do decide a fancier fitness monitor is worth the purchase, make sure it’s a device you can easily clip on or wear on your wrist and can be charged quickly. After all, what’s the point of spending hundreds of dollars on something that’s only going to be difficult to use?

Despite the caveats of purchasing a high-end monitor, researchers don’t discourage the use of fitness trackers in general.

“If you’re already motivated to exercise or eat differently, the monitor is a great tool to track your progress and help you understand where you need to make changes,” said Dr. Anne Thorndike, a preventive medicine researcher and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.


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Yasmeen Abutaleb can be reached at yasmeen.abutaleb@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@yabutaleb7.