Do we really know what fitness trackers can do for us?
So you've been reading an article in the Lifestyle section of a national newspaper by their star feature writer, who has been testing the latest fitness tracker on the market.
That fitness tracker has opened their eyes to just how little they move about and got them to step up (don’t excuse the pun). Upon hearing this, even the most ardent gadgetphobe might think: is this something for me?
But the bewildering range of functions- and prices - on offer might put you off. Besides, newspapers have already commissioned articles from writers who write that their so-called fitness friend is sucking the joy out of life. They ditch the treacherous device and start appreciating the value of real life and real friends. If you’re struggling to understand the benefits and you’re uneasy about the rate at which electronics are creeping into daily life this might be enough to make you give the relationship a miss without further ado.
Maybe, though, the feeling that a fitness tracker could be a supportive companion won't go away.
Understanding what works for you
When you’re trying to get fitter reflecting on what works for you and what doesn’t is important. Knowing what works gives you a chance of steering your ship in a positive direction and holding course through storms. To reflect, you need information to reflect upon.
Some of the information you can gather comes from cold, hard data. It follows that a tool that helps you gather data which you can turn into information which is meaningful for your health could be very useful.
Fitness trackers provide cold, hard data. You can turn this data into information which has meaning for you. Data on how many steps you’ve walked today is one measure of how active you’ve been. Compare that to how much you think you’ve walked and gloat/panic accordingly.
Heart rate and calories
The addition of a heart rate monitor will give you not only your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate and from this how many calories you burn. You might also get a basic, if possibly inaccurate, analysis of your sleeping patterns.
Sports tracking and GPS
Move into sports watch territory (and price range) and you can add GPS. With the right app you can now see your data in map format. Some watches are also waterproof, meaning you can wear them in the shower or bath and even track individual laps of the swimming pool. There at your fingertips are the answers to so many questions you never even thought to ask.
When you can't see the wood for the trees
By now you might have spotted the reason why Ms Cosmopolitan Journo fell out of love with her Fitgadget despite the advantages (aside from the fact that she was paid to).
Yes, a fitness tracker can be a jealous lover. It can persuade you to spend too much time obsessing over data. It can monopolise your attention and sidetrack you into trying to beat your own times instead of doing things that will be beneficial for your overall health - including socialising, resting, taking relaxing baths. Worse, it demotivates you when you - inevitably - don’t hit the numbers you want to.
So a fitness tracker has all the data you need, and more. But it’ll tease you into thinking you need more than you really do. If you worry it’ll hoodwink you, or if you’re generally concerned about the way smart equipment is wheedling its way into daily life, there are ways of getting some basic data without it.
Repurpose existing technology
You probably already have one intrusive technology that’ll give you fitness data - your smartphone. You’ll usually be able to get GPS-based measurements with a suitable app. You have a stopwatch and a timer. Many phones also record some kind of approximations of steps walked.
If you’d rather go off grid, you can get a very simple step tracker to record steps, and a good old-fashioned stopwatch and/or egg timer to keep time measurements. No tin foil hat required.
Frankly, this is all the data most of us ever really need (although without a heart rate monitor you won’t be confronted with the naked truth about how few calories you actually burn). The accuracy you’d get from a fitness tracker won’t be there, but as long as you take measurements in a consistent way this doesn’t necessarily matter. You can still compare them with one another to measure your progress.
Enter the data on a spreadsheet and you’re sorted. Or keep this stage off grid as well by using pen and paper.
So you can find and record data that will help you understand your fitness progress whether you get a fitness tracker or not.
A healthy relationship
I used a wristwatch and spreadsheet for years and was perfectly content, but I now have a healthy relationship with my fitness tracker. It definitely doesn't feel like my enemy. It gives me tough love about how little I move. I’m both a perfectionist and very forgetful and even I can remember to press one recording button at the right moment rather than three (usually….).
But if they’re not for you, then you don’t need to miss out. Why not try some data gathering with your phone or a stopwatch anyway? You’ll know more about what you want if you do decide to commit, and nothing you collect will be wasted.
It's about more than just data
I’ve kept one other source of deeply rich, free information up my sleeve. It’ll be your confidential friend even if you don’t collect any other data. And it will never try to hog your attention.
And that is a well-organised fitness diary.
A diary entry has information about your moods, emotions and thoughts as you try to get that little bit fitter. It lets you look over the shoulder of an earlier you as you reminisce about how far you’ve progressed. Not even the most sophisticated gadget comes close to recording