Are Wearable Activity Trackers Telling You the Truth?

Posted by Kyra Constam on October 6, 2016 at 11:00 AM

Activity trackers are meant to log physical activity, but are they falsely boosting your confidence? According to Centers for Disease Control, “physical activity is anything that gets your body moving.” However, the term ‘moving’ can be interpreted in different ways. Thankfully, the CDC goes on to clarify that there are two types of movement that truly count as physical activity: aerobic and muscle-strengthening. If you’re not familiar with aerobic exercise, you may know it as another term: cardio.

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Cardio or aerobic exercise involves raising your heart rate and increasing your breathing. This kind of activity can be done with light, moderate, or vigorous intensity. To actually qualify as being active though, you should focus on the latter two. While light intensity activities do get your body moving, they do not typically raise your heart rate, which is the goal of cardio. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is fairly self-explanatory in that it involves movements that moderately raise your heart rate, and typically make you break a sweat. Brisk walking or riding a stationary bike with some resistance fulfill this category. Alternatively, vigorous-intensity aerobic activity includes actions that require more labor, enough to significantly raise your heart rate and really get you breathing hard. Running, playing fast-paced sports, swimming laps, and using an elliptical machine at a significant incline all count as vigorous.

Muscle-strengthening should use all of the major muscles throughout your body. Activities that accomplish this task typically involve repetitions of a certain movement, such as push ups or weight lifting. For optimal health, it is recommended that you balance aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity throughout your week, with 150 minutes of cardio and at least two days of muscle-strengthening. Strengthening your muscles is important to maintain stamina and overall functionality of your body. Consistent usage of various muscle groups helps to avoid a buildup of tension.

Now that we’ve established what good physical activity is, we can tackle the question of activity tracker accuracy. Wearable technology is currently a huge trend among fitness enthusiasts and average people alike. An article from the New York Times recently explained a study in which a group wearing activity trackers lost less weight than those manually logging their exercise. The deficit in weight loss raises the question of what exactly these tech accessories are tracking. Because they can be, and typically are, worn 24/7, there is a large margin of error for what they count as “physical activity.” Incorrect readings are common since the device cannot differentiate real aerobic exercise from anything that involves shaking hands vigorously, such as washing dishes, taking a shower, or cleaning the floor. Furthermore, the trackers equally count "one step" for the energetic step of an aggressive walk or a minor shuffle at home, thus giving the illusion of higher exercise activity than what is actually occurring. These errors lead can lead to a false sense of accomplishment, without any real activity ever being completed.

We encourage you to take activity tracker results with a grain of salt, and concentrate on being truly active. Afterall, real physical activity “boosts mental wellness, improves physical wellness, [and] prolongs your optimal health” (American Heart Association). While working out, keep in mind that everyone is different. If you are not used to vigorous-intensity exercise, ease into it slowly to avoid injury. For more posts about achieving your healthiest self, subscribe to our blog, and follow us on social media.

Topics: exercise, wellness, activity trackers, health, cardio, aerobic exercise, muscle strengthening, advice