Fitness wearables: How fit is this tech?

Published: November 3, 2019 12:11:07 AM

Even as the wearables market continues to grow, studies and experts have questioned the effectiveness of the devices in actual weight loss or fitness.

stop watch, technologyMost fitness devices readily available in the market at attractive rates offer inputs on common parameters like calorie burn, number of steps taken, number of hours spent sleeping.

By Isha Arora

In this influx of technology, you can’t really call yourself smart until you swipe your finger across the screen of a smartphone on almost every occasion, to all intents and purposes, from the time you open your eyes in the morning till the time you close them at night.

But, it doesn’t stop there. We are surrounded by gadgets literally everywhere, and a fitness tracker is a comparatively new entrant. These days people of all age groups are sporting all sorts of fitness devices. For most fitness enthusiasts, life is now revolving around monitoring our calorie burn, tracking the number of steps we take, the number of hours we sleep, and so on.

Even kids today don’t ask for sports watches — they want fitness bands to be cool and trendy. The craze has reached such a pitch that even gym facilities have started offering fitness bands as rewards for members to work out. In the US, these ubiquitous bands have picked their way to McDonald’s Happy Meals to encourage physical activity. US-headquartered research firm Gartner recently estimated that by 2020 there will be 500 million fitness wearables adorning consumers across the world.

Even internet giant Google has now acquired wearable company Fitbit in a bid to enter the luring space. The acquisition, valued at a whopping $2.1 billion, was finally closed on November 1. This growing acceptance and importance of trackers bring two important questions to the fore. One, what is it about these devices that they are enjoying all the attention now? Secondly, do these devices even fulfill the purpose of their purchase? “Fitness trackers through wearables or smartphones do help individuals engage better with their health. Thus, there is a growing interest in using these trackers to improve health. This enthusiasm is likely driving the increase in the purchase of these devices,” says Mitesh Patel, assistant professor of medicine and healthcare management at the Perelman School of Medicine and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “However, the ultimate goal is to improve our everyday behaviour related to things like diet and exercise, and these new technologies offer only a way to gain objective insight into these behaviours. While one might be overwhelmed tracking information, the key is to focus on high-level trends and the ways one can improve their health,” adds Patel.

The point highlighted by Patel, raising questions around the effectiveness of fitness devices, is not without evidence. Patel and his team, in their personal capacity, have conducted clinical trials that found that giving patients a wearable device alone is usually not enough to motivate significant behaviour change. Besides, various studies conducted in recent times have pointed out similar flaws with using wearables. In September 2016, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh over a two-year period that suggested that fitness trackers might actually undercut weight-loss efforts. The study closely followed 470 overweight adults, who were put on a calorie-restricted diet. They were asked to aim for 100 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, while participating in a weekly group counselling session. In the first six months, everybody lost weight. However, for the next 18 months, half the participants were given armband fitness trackers, while the rest self-monitored their food intake. Surprisingly, after two years, the fitness tracker group lost just 7.7 pounds while the self-monitoring participants nearly doubled that by losing 13 pounds.

Another study published in October 2016 in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology also showed that trackers didn’t help people be physically more active or get healthier. In the one-year trial, researchers at Duke National University of Singapore Medical School had challenged 800 workers to take 70,000 steps a week. They had given one group Fitbit Zips and another Zips plus a cash bonus, each week, for meeting their step goals. After initial success in six months, all incentives were wiped off the table. The result: by the end of the study, 90% of Fitbit users had abandoned their devices.

The reasons behind such an unexpected result can be aplenty. It could stem from people’s lethargy to charge their wearables after they ran out of juice, and hence not motivated enough to undertake some physical activity to burn those calories. Or, it could be because the device, in itself, failed to induce some form of corrective behaviour. After all, technology can only do so much – a point that experts and studies around the subject have reiterated time and again.

Insufficient information

Most fitness devices readily available in the market at attractive rates offer inputs on three-four common parameters — calorie burn, number of steps taken, number of hours spent sleeping. Information regarding calorie intake, number of calories burnt with respect to a workout regime, consumption pattern is missing, which adds to the void that wearables create. A lot of devices also fail to differentiate between the intensity of activities undertaken to burn calories. For instance, if a person is lifting weights, the number of calories burnt as a result would be much higher than those burnt while walking. A majority of wearables fail to distinguish between the two and represent data only with respect to steps undertaken.

“Foremost, fitness trackers count calorie burn even when a person has just moved her arms. If the person has not taken any steps at all, it would still show that calories have been burnt with respect to the hand movement. Due to this, these devices are usually misleading,” says Ankit Sharma, fitness manager, Anytime Fitness, a gym in Noida. “Another very big flaw with these devices is that they give data about the calories burnt. However, no device keeps track of the calories being consumed. For instance, you’re burning 4,000 calories in a day, but consuming around 10,000. How will you ever lose weight or get fit then?” he adds.

While a layman might be satisfied merely watching their calories perish with every step they take, it naturally cannot be enough for someone willing to shed a few kilos or gain muscle and get fit. As long as the right kind of food is not consumed in the quantity needed by the body, attempts at getting fitter by walking or even running shall be rendered futile. And this is one wearable-induced mental block that most experts are struggling to break.

“Most of my patients, when asked or advised to follow a structured physical activity to achieve their health goal, confidently reply that ‘I track my steps through wearable devices and I’m sure to cover the recommended steps daily’,” notes Edwina Raj, senior dietician at Bengaluru-based Aster CMI Hospital. “So they believe that any additional exercise regime is unnecessary and only cardiovascular fitness activity such as walking/jogging/swimming is the ultimate goal to stay healthy and fit. They fail to understand that strength/resistance training is also an integral part of one’s fitness to achieve a healthy muscle mass, reduce body fat and improve strength for both young and old,” she rues.

A lot of devices are now catering to tackle this divide. Garmin, a US multinational technology company that specialises in GPS technology for automotive, aviation, marine, outdoor, and sport activities, and wearable technology has tied up with Fitnesspal.com, one of the biggest portals for monitoring a person’s daily food intake. It requires a person to make an entry of whatever he/she has consumed during the day, and the portal shows the number of calories a particular food item would have entailed. Similarly, a mobile application called HealthifyMe does a fairly good job of keeping track of one’s consumption. Irrespective, a divide can then arise in the form of lack of information on the quality of food that’s being consumed. If it’s junk, data on calorie intake can certainly not be enough to attain improved health standards.

Retail tech sensation

Even as fitness trackers continue to receive flak from experts, the sales of wearables have only multiplied. From the earliest introduction of fitness trackers in 2008 when Fitbit made its debut as a clip-on device, there are now a number of companies such as Fitbit, Samsung, Garmin, Xiaomi, Honor, that have disrupted the space. These devices come in a variety of colours with a plethora of features, from tracking steps to aiding stress management. These bands are priced anywhere between `2,000 and `50,000, depending upon the brand and number of features available. Their battery life also ranges from a few hours to over a year!

“I feel people are using these devices just to show off. It’s become a trend, in the sense that everyone is wearing them, irrespective of whether they understand the functionality of these devices or not. Most users don’t even bother to check the data displayed,” says Akram Malik, head trainer at Golds Gym, Noida. In the past three years of training at one of India’s most renowned gym chains, Malik has seen a number of people drifting towards the fitness tracker fad and then dropping it altogether, mostly out of boredom or by coming to terms with their non-futility. “People who come to gyms use the treadmills to track their activity, heart rate, calorie burn, etc. Even in our other machines like stepper, cross trainer, it’s all the same. For someone who doesn’t have the time to come to gyms and work out, fitness trackers can be a decent bet. After all, it is better to do some form of activity, even if it is in the form of walking, than doing nothing at all,” Malik adds.

Like most retail sensations that stream in and fade out of public view at roughly the same pace, the fitness tracker obsession also seems to be wearing out, albeit at a slower rate. A survey conducted by Gartner towards the end of 2016 showed high rate of abandonment of fitness trackers and smartwatches that are also used to track everyday activity among individuals.

According to the 2016 Gartner Personal Technologies Study survey, the abandonment rate of smartwatches is 29%, while that of fitness trackers is 30% – which means people get bored of wearables eventually. The survey had included inputs of 9,592 online respondents from Australia, the US and the UK between June and August 2016. Angela McIntyre, research director at the company, noted that there is a need for more compelling value propositions to make the market for wearables going. “The abandonment rate is quite high relative to the usage rate. To offer a compelling enough value proposition, the usefulness of wearable devices needs to be distinct from what smartphones typically provide. Wearable makers need to engage users with incentives and gamification,” she says.

“These devices are just a kind of support. They can’t directly help someone lose weight or gain health. I am an advanced athlete, so devices like these hardly help me,” says 60-year-old Ambuj Chaturvedi, a former advocate and fitness enthusiast. “However, for a beginner or amateur fitness enthusiast, these devices can be quite useful, as they give data on basic calorie burn and steps undertaken. One can start from these and take it forward by following proper work out regimes in gyms and fitness centres,” he adds.

Road ahead

The utility of any product eventually lies in the hands of its users. The case with fitness trackers is not much different. Popular opinion around the fitness tracker craze maintains that the device (much like technology) can only provide the means to achieve high fitness levels. Unless coupled with a behavioural and lifestyle change, the world of trackers shall only fizzle down to another dieting fad of sorts. “Wearable activity-trackers will help us track health and fitness related metrics at all times but a mobile application also helps us trace few activities when the phone is accompanied during the activities. Some activities such as floor exercises, yoga, pilates cannot be quantified. Hence, these metrics should be validated first and an opinion from experts must be obtained,” says Raj of Aster CMI hospital. “However both wearable trackers and mobile applications can be excellent companions to send alerts and motivate us since research suggests that 50% persons starting an exercise programme will drop out within the first six months due to lack of motivation and reminders,” she adds.
Akram of Gold’s Gym voices a similar opinion. “For someone who is looking at getting fit holistically, unless you understand your body completely and get a thorough check done to know how much nutrition you need to build muscle, data on steps taken or calories burnt would hardly help. I recommend people to consult with a knowledgeable trainer or seek a dietician or nutritionist’s advice on what are the nutrition and food needs of your body,” he says.

Companies on their part are also leaving no stone unturned to ensure that most customers’ fitness needs are taken care of. “We have 24*7 heart monitoring that also provides stress monitoring. Our device not only tells you what is your stress growth, but also helps you do breathing exercises for stress monitoring. Another feature is the move bar, which lays emphasis on frequent movement. If you’re sitting for a very long time, a bar pops up, which is an indication for a user to move or take a walk. Also, a lot of devices keep tab on the sleeping hours of a customer, but our devices tell one about their sleep pattern-light sleep, deep sleep and REM mode,” says Ali Rizvi, national sales manager at Garmin India. “If the battery of any fitness device goes off, it is unlikely that the user would use it again, because of lethargy or whatever reason. Here, too, Garmin has an advantage. We provide the best battery life in the entire industry. Our Vivo Fit 4 has a battery life of 1.5 years, which is quite phenomenal. Even in the case of remaining products, the battery life is at least one week, which I think is good enough. But research is on to create better products,” he adds.

It remains to be seen whether fitness devices will continue to remain in vogue or die out like most other fads, but the world surely seems to be getting increasingly aware of their fitness levels, and resorting to ways to improve their health and general well-being.

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