Just How Relevant is Your Fitness Tracker’s Data Feedback?

Fitness trackers accomplish two wonderful feats: 

They rev up your enthusiasm for working out, and they serve as nifty, accurate logs of your particular progressions (e.g., steps, laps, heart rate, calories burned, etc.). Today, specific software for fitness trackers even aggregates and correlates all of these data to produce charts and graphs, allowing fitness zealots to easily understand their peaks and valleys.

Did you know that some software even purports to correlate your fitness progress to your mood and overall productivity during a given day? Wow! However, as easy to wear as a watch, these clever devices can sometimes intoxicate the user with false impressions. In short, don’t plop 10 pages of fitness-tracker charts, graphs, and spreadsheets in front of your physician in hopes of giving good ol’ doc a head start on your physical exam. There are simply too many nuances and irrelevant data in a tracker to assume the device can displace annual checkups by a physician, according to an article in MIT Technology Review.

The article quotes a senior research scientist at the University of California San Francisco, Neil Sehgal. “Clinicians can’t do a lot with the number of steps you’ve taken in a day,” he says.

So, what’s the good news? Fitness trackers can provide some vital information about how you are improving your body’s endurance and capabilities. However, not all of the output gained through a tracker and its complementary software relates directly to your general health.

Holding a doctorate in public health, Sehgal and associates at the Center for Digital Health Innovation devote significant time to comparing data compiled by consumer wearables to that provided by medical-grade devices, says the Technology Review article.

“Clinicians can’t do a lot with the number of steps you’ve taken”

In fact, unlike the Biostrap, very few fitness trackers on the market today provide the reliability of devices built for medical usage. Indeed, professionals concur that devices such as the Fitbit and similar smart watches fail to perform as well as some of the common, less-sophisticated devices during a physical exam. They cite the traditional blood-pressure apparatus as an example, according to the MIT article.

Even institutionally, as in the Food and Drug Administration, fitness trackers are rated on criteria far less stringent than that for medical-grade devices. This is because separate devices and trackers, designed to specifically address particular health conditions, are employed in the medical field. Their recording and data output are therefore much more relevant and accurate.

The MIT article even suggests that rather than wearing trackers geared for general workout activity, consumers should pursue those trackers relevant to one specific aspect of your body’s condition or status. The article cites wristbands measuring skin conductivity to gauge your stress levels. Other devices hone in on skin variations to determine the level of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in the case of military veterans of wars.

Some fitness trackers are catching on to the game of providing more relevant data, such as Biostrap and a few other leaders in the field who include HRV, heart rate variability, in their tracker output. HRV monitors the elapsed time between each heart beat during an activity. HRV data can supplement other data related to your stress levels, for instance.

An article in Men’s Journal points to the widespread cluelessness among fitness buffs when assessing the meaning of their heart rate information. A celebrity trainer and owner of Drive 495 says in the article that nearly 9 of every 10 people in a gym wearing heart rate monitors are viewing the wrong information when it comes to their heart rate, or at least interpreting it incorrectly.

For instance, a person wearing a tracker during a workout might see their heart rate rise from 138 to 150 and think all is good because their heart rate increased. “But on that day,” says trainer Don Saladino in the article, “the best thing for them might have been to stay lower, because maybe they over-trained or are under-rested.”

Even formulas, commonly accepted in the fitness tracker industry as accurate, are not in fact accurate, says Saladino and other fitness professionals. These short-cuts to health analysis, such as the determination of your ideal heart rate based on your age, don’t cut the muster. They don’t account for one’s real-time physical state, says Saladino.

The Men’s Journal article, by Eric Sofge, insists that “zone-based training is complex and case-by-case, with numbers that fluctuate based on a wealth of different factors.”

Going back to the gist of the MIT Technology Review article, medical-grade devices prove much more inclusive when it comes to data under relevant conditions. A chest-mounted monitor, for instance, produces much more precise heart-beat data than a common fitness tracker, says the article. Granted, one cannot easily work out with such an unwieldy device attached to them.

So…What is a Health Nut to Do?

According to surveys and studies, more than 20 percent of all Americans now own one of the popular fitness trackers, like the Biostrap, and the number is growing. You may even witness fellow employees at your office wearing these devices while conducting meetings, issuing reports, or just doing some plain ol’ processing on their computers.

The infatuation with these instantaneous data gatherers is understandable, but depending on them to substitute for more technical, isolated, and professional monitoring can be a grave mistake.

Most health experts, including the ones cited here, suggest consumers exercise patience rather than ironclad conclusions based on the ticking of fitness trackers.

Fortunately for all of us, Biostrap and other fitness tracker companies are continuing to gain a better grasp on what data is most relevant and when. Medical pros therefore recommend that consumers learn to put their tracker’s data into proper context, and keep an eye open for newer trackers that recognize the most relevant data pertaining to one’s fitness.

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