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Are people who wear fitness trackers healthier than people who don't?


The jury's still out on whether fitness trackers lead to lasting, sustainable changes in health.
The jury's still out on whether fitness trackers lead to lasting, sustainable changes in health.
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Sam finally jumped on the bandwagon and purchased a fitness tracker, one of those wrist-worn devices that monitors daily steps, heart rate and sleep patterns. He expected it to remind him to move more, something that was especially challenging for him considering his desk job. But it turned out to work even better than Sam expected. Not only did it motivate him to start taking daily walks after work, he also began biking on some of his morning commutes. And those treks from his computer to the printer down the hall? They weren't a chore anymore, but a welcome way to get in a few more steps.

Fitness trackers, which fall within the broad band of "wearable technology," range from fitness bands to smart clothing and other devices that track activity levels. Most fitness trackers use Bluetooth to upload data to an app on a mobile device that compiles and delivers the wearers' activity results. They usually include built-in, customizable activity goals.

With all those bells and whistles, the real question is whether wearing fitness trackers make people healthier. A lot of us think they might.

While nearly 80 percent of Americans report being familiar with at least one wearable device that's on the market, far fewer are actually wearing them. According to a 2014 survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, while one in five Americans own wearable technology in their fitness arsenal, only about one in 10 wear the technology every day. Even those who weren't using wearable technology, though, predicted the devices would improve our collective health in the future. Case in point: More than half believed wearable technology would increase lifespans by a decade, and nearly half predicted improvements in athleticism and weight loss [source: Comstock].

And they could be right. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed 26 studies encompassing 2,700-plus participants and found that wearable technology — even if it's a low-tech pedometer — spawned a 26.9 percent increase in participants' physical activity. This increased activity led to a reduction in participants' body mass index and blood pressure [source: Bravata].

Using fitness tracker data is a powerful move toward a healthier lifestyle for many data-driven consumers interested in how much they actually move throughout the day, in addition to how much (and how restfully) they are sleeping. Some fitness trackers even count calories or buzz with reminders to move, but are those who wear them healthier than those who don't?

It depends on where the data takes them and what their attitude is during the journey. Taking 2,000 more steps out of a dogged and resentful determination to meet a pre-set tracker goal may cancel out its benefits by the stress it causes. The jury's still out on whether fitness trackers lead to lasting, sustainable changes in health, but the key could lie in future devices that offer interpretations of data rather than raw numbers [source: Siegel].


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