Do health-tracking wearables actually make us healthier?

When I’m not writing all about the health IT world, I am a personal trainer, and it never ceases to amaze me how often these two worlds collide. The other day one of my training clients said to me – “I’ve gained almost 10 pounds since I got my <insert name of popular health-tracking device here>. Isn’t it supposed to do the opposite?”

 I thought about it for a minute.

 “Well,” I began, “Do you wear it every day? Have you forgotten it any?”

 The client shook her head. “I only take it off to shower and to charge it.”

 I thought a little more.

 “How have your behaviors changed since you started wearing it?”

 Now she looked at me strangely. She shrugged. I asked her to keep wearing her health-tracking fitness band, but to also go back to keeping a journal where she logs in her activities and her food. In addition, I asked her to also log in how often she consults her wearable.

 When she came back to me the next week, she handed over the journal. It didn’t take long to see what the problem was. In the evenings, when my client had consulted her health-tracking device (which she does about a billion times a day), she would then consume the exact amount of calories she had remaining in order to come in right at her daily goal. However, sometimes these snacks consisted of highly processes carbohydrates and sugars. In addition, her fitness band had no way of knowing her muscle mass or the speed at which she metabolizes specific types of food.

 Technology plays an enormous and essential role in the detection, diagnosis and treatment of many life-threatening diseases. Digital devices monitor heartbeats and blood pressure, all able to be analyzed by the amazing connectivity of the Internet of Things. We can cure and prevent more illnesses than ever imagined before with digestible sensors, hybrid operating rooms and 3D printed biological materials. However, as a fitness professional, I’m not talking about that kind of technology. I’m talking about the kinds of health-tracking gadgets, like wristbands, apps and trackers, that have become as common place as the timeless Timex. Can these wearables really stop, or even reverse, the American obesity epidemic?

The answer is — it depends. In my client’s case, no. Or, not exactly. She was using the fitness band to justify eating poorer quality foods more often. For some people, however, they do work amazingly. I regularly meet marathon runners who worship the Garmin watches that help them track speed, as well as fitness band enthusiasts who saw the fat melt away from the moment they plugged in. The crux is this – in order to live a healthier lifestyle, you have to change human behavior. While these health-tracking devices cannot force behavior change, they can make us more aware of our actions and choices. 

Interested in using health & fitness tech to kickstart or continue your healthy lifestyle? Check out CNet’s review of top wearables under $200: