What’s the Deal with Fitness Trackers?

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Fitness trackers were invented with the idea of being able to track and score a person’s physical activity data in one place, a wearable place, with the overarching goal of making it easier for people to lose weight. The concept is basic enough that having to write it out was probably unnecessary, if not for the fact that yet another study has found the use of fitness trackers to be inconsequential.

This particular report, published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, observed participants with and without fitness trackers who went to health counseling, and found that those who only went to counseling lost more weight. This comes on the heels of countless other studies that have found trackers to be inaccurate, that they expose data, and that they cling to your wrist so tightly they cut off your circulation (okay, that last one isn’t true, but given the rate of these studies, I give it three months). In turn, wearable fitness companies and advocates are wondering why such studies use terrible devices, which might be exposing business motivations, or the oncoming of a human vs. technology war nobody is safe from.

All kidding aside, these kinds of conflicting reports have to leave consumers wondering where to leave their wearable fitness devices. With such a simple concept and the convenience factor of these trackers so inherently obvious, as usual, the decision is left up to the fated person wearing it. However, the health counseling side of The Lancet’s report is particularly striking, if only because it brings in something fitness trackers are more or less designed to eliminate: the human element. Wait—where have I heard that before?

Throw the legitimacy of the devices used in the study for just a moment. If human interaction and communication can theoretically help a person with their fitness goals—keeping track of goals, measuring successes, and discussing feelings—is it possible that fitness trackers might not be necessary? Perhaps all we need is someone to bounce our experience off of, a person with requisite knowledge of fitness and exercise who can provide perspective, offer advice, and most importantly, listen.

I write that notion knowing full well that these people aren’t readily available to every person looking to shed a few pounds or lower their heart rates. It’s likely far less expensive to invest in a fitness tracker than a health counselor, not to mention a whole lot easier (fitness trackers come to you, whereas you go to counselors). But what fitness trackers reduce us to are numbers—height, weight, heart and breathing rates, running times. All these numbers are important, particularly those that have to do directly with our health, but in almost no other walk of life do we so reduce our existence to a bare dataset. For some people, working out is an emotional thing, a difficult thing that needs to be managed and tempered and massaged, not necessarily rigorously tracked.

Fitness trackers work for the majority of people who use them, and that simple fact can’t be ignored. There’s no reason to rid the world of these convenient wearables, but maybe it’s time to consider that a gym buddy or a friend with a willing ear might do the trick just as well, even if that person can’t measure your heart rate while you’re on the treadmill.