Fitness trackers are great at telling us how far we've walked or how much sleep we get each night. What they're not so good at is explaining how that information can help you make healthy changes to your life. It is almost entirely up to the user to decipher all that data and decide how to use it.
“Big data” has been the buzzword of the decade. We're living in the age of "the quantified self," and we've become obsessed with measuring, analyzing, and optimizing almost every aspect of our lives. With the fitness tracker craze, our love of data has now turned inward. Instead of measuring and evaluating everything around us, we can ogle over our own stats and use hard numbers to improve our minds, bodies, and performance.
But is all this data really making us healthier, or do we just enjoy admiring the results of our own physical output?
Diving Deeper Into Fitness Data
While some fitness trackers do promise to offer users advice to improve their health, most of these "insights" are little more than generic wellness tips that we already know: Go to bed. Turn off the TV. Take a walk. Being reminded to get up and walk around isn't a bad thing, but it doesn't go quite far enough if we're talking about really getting healthier. It's a gentle nudge when what we really need is a hard shove to take action with an incentive we can't resist.
Right now, the primary function of a fitness wearable is to spit out a constant stream of hard data about our bodies. Users are left to fend for themselves when it comes to figuring out what changes to make in their habits.
Recording your fitness data is great, but some have questioned whether it's enough to really improve our health. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that owning a fitness device and recording your data is only the first, small step towards living a healthier life.
The Future Of Fitness Tracking
What we really need are devices that can record this data, put it all together, and use environmental and physical cues to build a comprehensive profile of our habits, motivations, and bodies. To really take the benefits of fitness tracking to the next level, these devices should be able to interpret all this data for us and offer personalized directions on what to do, and when to do it.
Imagine if fitness trackers could take everything they know about you and work with your surroundings to help you achieve your fitness goals. Let's say you're out taking a stroll. Your device could send you a notification that says
"Hey Joe, Asian pears are your favorite fruit, and they're in season right now. There's also a farmer's market down the street with an Asian pear vendor. Here are the directions. Go eat some pears."
Or let's say you’re having a nightmare. Your device could sense that your brainwaves are going haywire and you're thrashing around. If it were connected to your smart house, your device could try and wake you up by turning on the lights or setting off an alarm clock. Then, it could play your favorite song to calm you down because it knows that music relaxes you.
Your device would constantly monitor your physical state in relation to your environment and make little adjustments to make you more comfortable. It would also offer clear, specific, personalized actions that directly benefit your life. Now that would revolutionize our health.
Achieving this degree of sophistication may not be very far away. Many predict that the next wave of wearables will be more accurate and focused on making intelligent inferences about our data for us.
Current Fitness Tracker Limitations
Many consumers may not even realize that fitness trackers are rather limited in terms of functionality. Most trackers are not advanced enough to relay detailed metrics for specific sports. General purpose fitness trackers usually only offer basic data like number of steps taken, heart rate, distance, number of calories burned, and number of hours slept.
What these numbers can actually reveal about your health could be up for debate. Perhaps this is why your doctor really doesn't care about the data collected from your FitBit. Neil Sehgal, a senior research scientist at the UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation, comments, “Clinicians can’t do a lot with the number of steps you’ve taken in a day.”
Some have also questioned how accurate the "calories burned" data is that you get back from fitness trackers. Each device uses its own algorithm to calculate how many calories you burned by moving your body a certain distance at a certain speed. Some trackers lean heavily on heart rate in their calculations, which can throw off accuracy since heart rate will vary widely in each individual, even if they're doing the same activity.
Experts say that breathing is the most reliable physical indicator to use to record how many calories you burn during a workout. Unfortunately, the only wearable that does this is an indirect calorimeter device — a five-pound gadget that you wear strapped to your back, which analyzes oxygen consumption through a mouthpiece and looks like this: Indirect Calorimeter Device Not too practical for the average gym rat. Oh, and it also costs between $30,000 and $50,000.
How Fitness Tracking Really Improves Your Health
Despite the current limitations of fitness trackers, they can actually help improve your health — but not in the way that you'd expect.
For many people, simply collecting data about themselves is so satisfying and rewarding that these psychological benefits actually trickle down to improve their physical health.
According to Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford, “It can put you at ease that the sleep you’re getting is better than you think, and that reduction in anxiety can help you sleep better.”
Concerns about health and mortality are a universal stressor for almost everyone. Am I getting enough sleep? I need to eat better. Will I have a heart attack? Cancer runs in my family. Will I get sick?
The irony here is that being stressed out over your health ... makes you sick. This stress is compounded by the fact that our own bodies are a mystery to us. We don't really know what's going on under the surface, or what potential health problems we're going to face in the future. Fear of the unknown can leave us feeling anxious, helpless, and filled with dread — an almost lethal combination of stressors that can wreck havoc on our health. Over time, stress can lead to major medical problems like chronic aches and pain, heart attacks, or infertility.
So maybe the real benefit behind all those numbers is simple reassurance. Fitness data offers us hard evidence that our bodies are functioning; we're still alive and well, and everything is OK.
The data we get from fitness devices isn't just a random flash of numbers, it's a message from our body to our mind that says, "Take a break for awhile, we've got this."