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Do fitness and nutrition trackers hurt or help?

Thinking of investing in a fitness band or smartwatch? Read this before you make a decision 

People with simple, clear goals regarding their health and wellness can benefit from the general data collected on their devices
People with simple, clear goals regarding their health and wellness can benefit from the general data collected on their devices (Istockphoto)

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Have you heard of the term "orthosomnia?" If you're any word sleuth, you may be able to deduce that the term"somnia" may have something to do with our sleep. Ortho means "straight or correct." And it seems, thanks to wearable technology, people have become obsessed with the data around hacking the perfect sleep.

I've always been incredibly wary of measuring my sleep. I'm keenly aware of my sleeping issues; I don't need technology helping me reminisce over a fitful night's rest. I have all the evidence I need under my eyes each morning. Unless this technology can spit out a melatonin pill or automatically turn off all blue lights in my room at 10 pm, the data is useless and will simply add to my stress. 

Also read: How to detox without dramatic dieting

But without a doubt, many people love having access to this data. They are not only analysing their sleep with glee the following morning; they are also using technology to track and record their workouts and nutrition. These tracking features are a continued craze in wearable fitness technology, and according to Fortune Business Insights, the fitness tracker market size was 36.34 billion in 2020, with a staggering 19.5% growth.

However, cynical folks like me are begging this question — do we need sleep, nutrition, and fitness trackers to enhance our health and wellness goals?

First, let me tell you why relying on fitness trackers can be problematic. Then, I'll go into when and for who they can actually be beneficial. 

The first issue is that data in itself isn't particularly significant. They are just numbers that sit there, looking great on a graph until you use them for something meaningful. Let's look at sleep trackers in particular. Does looking at sleep data convince you to set your bedtime half an hour earlier that night? Does it remind you to dim the lights, turn off your blue light devices, and calm your parasympathetic nervous system to allow you to optimise your sleep? In the same vein, does reviewing your workout data inspire you to work out harder the next day or convince you to take a rest day the following day? The problem with having access to data is that it doesn't always inspire action. 

The second concern is whether you can review the data as objective information, or do you embody it? Perhaps after several nights of watching your poor sleeping patterns, you personalise the outcome rather than change your habits. Instead of "I've been sleeping poorly," you identify as a "poor sleeper." Or, "my workouts aren't that intense lately" turns into "I'm unfit."  The data can become less about decision-making and more about you as a person, and on the whole, that's tragically unfortunate. No piece of technology should dictate who you are as a person. I can tell you, as a coach, that your identity plays into your future success, which I will discuss below.

The third thing is that the data could be wrong. Wearable devices are only as good as the technology and data behind them. For example, distance measurements can be inaccurate - a study titled Accuracy of Distance Recordings in Eight Positioning-Enabled Sport Watches reviewed the top brands to find a discrepancy between the mean average of 3.2-6.1%. According to Insider, the FDA recognises a disparity of 20% in the calories listed on nutrition labels. If you're using your data to make informed decisions about your diet or fitness regime, you are making decisions based on shifting sands.

Also read: Not able to lose weight? It could be chronic stress

And finally, according to Mike Powell at Forbes, 42% of people stop wearing their fitness trackers within six months. This statistic matches the dropout rate of fitness centres. This rapid decline in users shows us that the data starts as exciting and novel. However, it can quickly be forgotten or become demotivating over time. Tech companies are rapidly trying to gamify their trackers, allowing people to gain badges and join challenges to keep usage high. However, the statistics show that a tracker isn't a long-term solution for most people to stay fit. 

After reading all this, you may assume that I hate wearable trackers and find them useless when calibrating your lifestyle to match your goals. Not at all -- there is a rather large population of people who, when using wearable technology correctly, can benefit from it.

People with simple, clear goals regarding their health and wellness can benefit from the general data collected on their devices. For example, if you're looking to run 5-10 km continuously, the data supplied by your tracker may be invaluable for monitoring your progress. Likewise, watching your weekly trends is a great way to motivate yourself if you want to manage your gym consistency. 

People who don't overemphasise the numbers and look for general trends objectively do well with data trackers. They don't get lost in the murky waters of exact numbers; they benefit from the awareness that those numbers provide. They can keep their identities and feelings out of the equation and focus on the data. For example, perhaps they have started using a calorie tracker and suddenly became aware that they are dramatically overeating at dinner every evening. That awareness can lead to an action plan that rebalances their diets. 

The decision ultimately lies with you. If you notice that your motivation peaks when viewing the data around your lifestyle decisions and you can stay above the obsession around the numbers,  use wearable technology or apps to help enhance your health and wellness journey. However, if you notice that you start to slide the negative slope of becoming obsessed with the numbers and affecting how you view yourself, it's probably better not to waste your money on a tracker. 

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach










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