Thinking of buying a fitness tracker? Here's what to consider before you do.
The market for fitness trackers has absolutely exploded in the last few years.
Whether it’s a smartwatch or an activity tracker, there is no shortage of choice when it comes to keeping an eye on your health.
But apart from looking the part, will any of these devices actually help you to achieve your fitness goals?
A quick note before we dive in: Just as with my Peloton review article, this is not a full review of various activity trackers - there are plenty of those available should you want one. Rather it is a health coach's view on the argument for buying one, and what you should take into account before you do so.
“What gets measured gets managed”. Peter Drucker’s famous quote is essentially the basic argument for buying a health tracker of any kind. And today’s trackers have a whole host of measurements they can take. From step counting at the most basic level, all the way up to advanced heart monitoring that can detect potentially dangerous conditions.
Let’s start with step counting. As I work with clients who are most often looking to lose weight, we usually start with a step count target. It is a simple and effective way of increasing daily activity. The most basic activity trackers will allow you to count your steps, and this is one of the most useful tools of a wearable. Even the simple fact of knowing that your steps are being counted will often lead to an increase in daily steps taken.
Now as we start to move up the complexity scale, a lot of wearables will allow us to monitor our sleep. This is also very useful, because once again, being aware that we’re tracking sleep is often enough to bring increased focus to improving its quality. No one likes their morning sleep report to look like they slept at a bus stop on a dual carriageway.
Right at the top end of the feature set we start to see heart rate monitoring and blood oxygen saturation. These are some complex indicators, but certainly ones that I can see a use for. The Withings Scanwatch for example has a medical grade electrocardiogram and can detect atrial fibrillation right from your wrist. That’s pretty impressive. When considering all round health, and not just weight loss, these indicators can bring invaluable peace of mind.
There are also a whole host of other features that I could go into, such as GPS tracking, guided breathing sessions and reminders to move, but suffice to say if you’re looking to track your health then you’ve got some incredibly advanced options out there.
Not so healthy functionality
The list of health indicators available on these devices is impressive, and whilst not absolutely necessary, they are certainly a very useful addition to your daily health practices.
But there is a sinister side to many of today’s health trackers, and one that I absolutely cannot recommend.
That is the feature that allows you to receive notifications on your wearable. This is particularly prevalent on smartwatches, but even some activity trackers invade your mental space by having your device buzz to let you know that you’ve got a notification.
This is all part of a broader, and rather insidious, battle for our attention that can have a severe impact on our health - one that is extremely damaging if left unchecked.
These notifications lead to an increased level of stress and distraction. Neither of which is beneficial to our health. Improved health instead requires lower stress levels and more focused attention on our actions.
It may seem a little melodramatic, but if you spend a day monitoring your own time and attention, you’ll soon see that we’re all in trouble unless we take action.
This is the main reason that I really like the Oura Ring because it does what it was designed to do - track your health. There is no screen or vibration on the device, so it isn’t a distraction at all. And this is truly invaluable.
If you are considering buying a wearable device for its health tracking benefits, then do yourself a favour and turn off all notifications that aren’t related to your health as soon as you get it out of the box. As far as you can, I’d do the same on your phone whilst you're at it.
Beware of shiny objects
Ironically, in researching this article, I practically convinced myself that I need a wearable.
As humans we often have a tendency to chase something new and shiny, largely because it distracts us from what we know we’re supposed to be doing. We love distractions because they take us away from that feeling of discomfort that comes with actually doing what we’re supposed to do.
In the case of losing weight for example, whilst you might convince yourself that monitoring all of your vitals will be useful in your quest to get on top of your health, what will actually help you is not that at all. It’s far simpler, and far more uncomfortable - and so you end up focusing on something distracting like a new smartwatch.
Think about it. When was the last time you heard someone say: “I lost 4 stone, boosted my confidence, and I have more energy than I know what to do with - and it’s all because I bought this watch”? You’ve never heard that.
The harsh truth is that serious changes to your health require serious lifestyle changes. Whilst a health tracker can certainly aid in the process by allowing you to monitor what you're doing, it won’t do the work for you.
Don’t trick yourself into thinking it is necessary. Not owning a health tracker is not the reason that you haven’t bothered to sort your nutrition out, start moving more, improve your sleep and generally overhaul your lifestyle. These changes have to come from a deeper place - and spending £300 on a fancy device isn’t it.
Which device would I recommend?
I don’t own a health tracker. I don’t personally see the need for it at the moment. That may change over time.
“What gets measured gets managed”. Peter Drucker’s famous quote is essentially the basic argument for buying a health tracker of any kind.
If I were to buy one however, it would be either the Oura Ring or The Withings Scanwatch.
There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that they both have pretty advanced health monitoring capabilities. The second, and most important is they are both the least distracting - the Oura Ring far less so than any other wearable. The Withings does allow notifications, but you can turn them off and it has a classic style with only a small screen on its face.
If you’re looking for something to inspire you to sort out your diet, exercise and lifestyle then a health tracker isn’t going to do that for you. Though you may try to convince yourself that it will.
But if you’ve already committed to improving your health - doing the difficult things that lead to valuable changes - then one of these devices can certainly benefit you on that journey, as you aim to optimise your health one day at a time.
If you need some help with sorting out the fundamentals for weight loss and all round health optimisation, then I’d be more than happy to help. Send a short email to email@example.com letting me know what you need help with, and we'll have a chat.