ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Do Activity Trackers Work? For Some Groups More Than Others

Do Activity Trackers Work? For Some Groups More Than Others

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-11-16


Activity trackers are fitness devices designed to record physical activity. Some also track other health metrics, such as heart rate, sleep tracking, and more. The idea behind this wearable technology is that it will inspire people to create healthy behaviors, in part, by increasing their awareness. But do they work?

This is an important question to answer as a personal trainer—especially when it is asked by clients. According to research, fitness trackers can be effective in improving fitness. However, their benefits can also vary depending on who is using them.

Activity Trackers Work, But Not for All Types of Clients

One 2022 study looked at 39 pieces of research involving wearable fitness trackers. In total, they included 163,992 participants from various age groups and with a range of health levels. Researchers noted that, overall, the use of a fitness tracker was connected with improvements in (1):

  • physical activity levels

  • body composition

  • level of fitness

Individuals wearing fitness trackers took around 1,800 more steps per day, which equates to roughly 40 minutes of additional walking. Their average weight loss was approximately 1 kilogram or 2.2 pounds. Sounds good, right? Yes, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Other pieces of research have looked more closely at the effect of fitness trackers within certain groups. Their findings suggest that, for some individuals, these devices may not provide as many benefits.

One such study reviewed their effects on older adults. Specifically, it wanted to know if wearing a fitness tracker helped improve physical activity levels in older adults who were sedentary. In the short term, they did appear to work. However, their effects weren’t as clear among participants 80 years old and older. (2)

Another piece of research looked at participants at the opposite end of the age spectrum: 9-year-olds. In this study, the amount of physical activity in fitness tracker wearers actually decreased by 10 minutes over time. Not surprisingly, there was not a significant change in their fitness scores. (3)

A 2020 meta-analysis echoes these findings. It indicates that wearable trackers can increase activity levels in healthy adults. However, when participants were broken down into subgroups, these devices provided “no clear benefit” for increasing physical activity or aiding in weight reduction. (4)

What does all this mean? While activity trackers may be helpful overall, they might not work for every client. They also show less effectiveness for clients at the more extreme ends of the age spectrum. Keeping this in mind can help both you and your clients develop realistic expectations when using these devices.

Fitness Tracker Pros and Cons

When trying to decide whether a fitness tracker could be beneficial for a specific client, it helps to consider its pros and cons.

Fitness Tracker Benefits

At a minimum, fitness tracking helps boost awareness. People know how much activity they’re getting. This reduces their ability to convince themselves that they’re more active than they are. It also makes it easier to see how much activity they need to achieve their desired results.

Some people find fitness trackers incredibly motivating. They try to beat their level of activity from one day to the next. Or they strive to maintain a certain level of activity several days or weeks in a row. 

Another benefit is that trainers can use fitness trackers to enhance the training process. The data they provide can help the trainer assess their client’s level of activity outside of the training session. Trainers can also give clients activity goals to aim for, using their trackers to help hit them.

Where Activity Trackers Fall Short

One con of fitness trackers is their level of accuracy. In a study involving endurance athletes, the trackers were found to provide inaccurate heart rate measurements. Inaccuracies have also been found when measuring the physical activity of individuals in wheelchairs. (5) For instance, one study noted that the Apple Watch was a poor measurer of low-frequency wheelchair pushing. Thus, their activity data would be off. (6)

Plus, sometimes people get so caught up in what their fitness tracker says that they fail to listen to their 

bodies. They may push themselves too hard to hit a goal set by the tracker. This could lead to injury. Or they might get so stressed trying to achieve perfection in each tracker measurement that it sends their blood pressure up.

Fitness trackers are also only good when you use them. Not everyone wants to wear a tracker all day. Even if they do, over time, they may pay less attention to it. Its newness wears off and it becomes just one more fitness device that they have but no longer use. 

The Bottom Line

In the end, fitness trackers can offer value to people who find them motivating, also increasing their awareness of how active they are. And while they may not be 100% accurate, these devices can help show approximate activity levels and fitness trends. They’re another tool in the fitness toolbox, helping clients better reach their health and wellness goals.

Fitness Tracker Feature Options: What to Look for

If a client wants to try a fitness tracker, they may ask your advice about what features to look for. Choosing the right fitness tracker isn’t always easy because so many options exist. Here are some features for them to consider:

  • Battery life. Some people wear their tracking devices during the day, charging them at night. But if they’re interested in sleep tracking, they need one that has a long battery life. Some trackers offer 15 days of battery life. Others have a battery life of 5 days or less. Finding the right battery life for how they intend to use the tracker is important to make sure it stays charged.

  • Type of physical activity tracked. A lot of the trackers record data for walking and running. However, these aren’t the only fitness activities one can engage in. People also bike, swim, strength train, and more. Choosing a fitness tracker that can record data for these workouts provides a more complete picture of one’s activity level.

  • Heart rate monitoring. In the past, finding a tracker that acted as a heart rate monitor meant spending more money. Now, this is often a basic feature. But they can vary in terms of what heart rate data they provide. In addition to recording heart rate during activity, some also track resting heart rate. Others will detect an irregular heart rate or rhythm, notifying the wearer of such.

  • Ability to set fitness goals. People have different fitness goals. If you’re able to tell the tracker what your goal is, it makes it easier to see your progress. This can be more valuable than simply having the tracker provide data that you have to interpret on your own.

  • Sleep tracking. This feature may be desirable for people who struggle to get good sleep. Depending on the device, it may share information about sleep duration and quality. Some even make suggestions about how to improve your ability to fall and stay asleep.

  • Stress tracking. One of the newest features in fitness trackers is the ability to monitor stress. Oftentimes, this is done by tracking heart rate variability. If variability is low, it’s a sign that you’re under stress.

What’s the Best Fitness Tracker?

There are many different opinions as to the best fitness tracker. And these opinions typically vary depending on what feature or features matter most. 

When it comes to accuracy, one researcher suggests that Fitbit products are best. Many options exist with this brand, some of which include (7):

  • Fitbit Charge – higher priced but includes features not available on other Fitbits, such as built-in GPS, ECG app for heart rhythm assessment, and stress tracking; up to 7 days of battery life

  • Fitbit Luxe – one of the lowest priced Fitbits, yet still offers a long feature list, minus high and low heart rate notifications; offers 5 days of battery life

  • Fitbit Ace – another lower priced Fitbit with 8 days of battery life; designed to track activity in kids aged 6 and up

  • Fitbit Inspire – has a high battery life (10 days) while providing a lot of fitness tracking features; it also offers sleep tracking with some stress tracking features

Clients can also purchase Fitbit Premium, giving them access to guided programs and more personalized insights. If they don’t like to carry credit cards, Fitbit Pay enables them to pay for purchases with this fitness tracker. This may be of interest if your client is looking for a more functional device. Although it may not be available on some of the older models, such as the Fitbit Flex 2, Alta, and Zip.

PC Magazine hails the Halo View as the most affordable fitness tracker. Though, if you’re looking for an Apple Watch alternative, the Fitbit Versa 3 is a similar, yet more affordable option. It also names the Fitbit Charge 5 as the most advanced. Wired likes the Fitbit Charge 5 as well, calling it the “best all-around” fitness tracker. 

What’s the best fitness tracker for stress tracking? According to Wareable, the Garmin Vivoactive, Garmin Vivosmart, and Garmin Forerunner are good options. So is the Samsung Galaxy Watch—specifically, the Galaxy Watch 3 and Galaxy Watch Active 2. While the Apple Watch and Apple Watch SE don’t offer stress tracking, they do offer third-party apps that can do the trick.

For clients who live in other areas of the world, the Xiaomi Mi Smart Band 6 is an international option with good reviews, earning 4.5 stars on Amazon. It tracks heart rate, sleep, and more. The Xiaomi Mi Band also has a 14-day battery life.

How to Help Clients Get the Most from Their Fitness Tracker

If your clients use wearable activity trackers, you can help them get the most from these devices. One option is to encourage them to hold activity tracker competitions with friends. This can make fitness tracking fun.

Most trackers also enable wearers to make them their own by swapping out the fitness band. They can choose different colors and styles to match their personality and needs. When they like how their tracker looks, they’ll be more inclined to wear it regularly. This makes it easier to keep track of their fitness trends.

Of course, activity tracking is just one way to help clients boost their fitness levels. It’s also beneficial to create a program that aligns with their genetic makeup. You can offer your clients this service as a DNA-Based Fitness Coach. With this certification, you can create individualized exercise and diet plans for your fitness clients based on what their bodies need for the greatest success. 


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References

  • Ferguson, T., Olds, T., Curtis, R., Blake, H., Crozier, A. J., Dankiw, K., Dumuid, D., Kasai, D., O'Connor, E., Virgara, R., & Maher, C. (2022). Effectiveness of wearable activity trackers to increase physical activity and improve health: A systematic review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The Lancet Digital Health, 4(8). https://doi.org/10.1016/s2589-7500(22)00111-x 

  • Liu, J. Y.-W., Kor, P. P.-K., Chan, C. P.-Y., Kwan, R. Y.-C., & Cheung, D. S.-K. (2020). The effectiveness of a wearable activity tracker (wat)-based intervention to improve physical activity levels in sedentary older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 91, 104211. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.archger.2020.104211 

  • Duck, A. A., Hall, K. C., Klamm, M., Temple, M., & Robinson, J. C. (2020). Physical activity and fitness: The feasibility and preliminary effectiveness of wearable activity tracker technology incorporating altruistic motivation in Youth. Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 26(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/jspn.12313 

  • Tang, M. S., Moore, K., McGavigan, A., Clark, R. A., & Ganesan, A. N. (2020). Effectiveness of wearable trackers on physical activity in healthy adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. JMIR MHealth and UHealth, 8(7). https://doi.org/10.2196/15576 

  • Budig, M., Höltke, V., & Keiner, M. (2019). Accuracy of optical heart rate measurement and distance measurement of a fitness tracker and their consequential use in sports. German Journal of Exercise and Sport Research, 49(4), 402–409. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12662-019-00621-1 

  • Glasheen, E., Domingo, A., & Kressler, J. (2021). Accuracy of Apple Watch Fitness Tracker for wheelchair use varies according to movement frequency and task. Annals of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, 64(1), 101382. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rehab.2020.03.007 

  • Beatson, N. (2017). Accuracy of fitness trackers. Digital Commons @ Winthrop University. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://digitalcommons.winthrop.edu/source/SOURCE_2017/allpresentations/42/ 

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