Share on Pinterest
Experts say fitness trackers can provide motivation and accountability. Tom Werner/Getty Images
  • Researchers say people living with diabetes, heart disease, and obesity can increase their physical activity levels by using fitness trackers.
  • Experts say the trackers can provide accountability and help people at all levels motivate themselves.
  • They advise people not to fixate on the tracker numbers but instead use them as an overall guide.

Wearing fitness trackers can help people with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease boost physical activity levels.

That’s the finding from an analysis published this week in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers reviewed 38 randomized clinical trials with 4,203 participants. They reported that interventions with wearable fitness trackers were associated with significantly increased physical activity levels after approximately 15 weeks.

Devices such as pedometers or trackers that count steps were associated with greater levels of physical activity in about 70 percent of the studies examined.

Even with the noticeable improvements, participants still didn’t meet minimum physical activity recommendations highlighted in the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and in other recommendations from global governments and agencies.

Health and Human Services officials recommend that adults engage in at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or fast dancing, every week.

“Motivation is often one of the hardest habits to instill and keep, especially during times of chronic or unmanaged stress,” said Nancy Lin, PhD, a holistic nutritionist and fitness consultant associated with YogaSix GO.

“Coming out of a pandemic or beginning a new fitness routine can be daunting, and keeping motivated, especially when introduced to something new, can sometimes taper and or dissolve as soon as expectations of the outcome are met with challenge,” she told Healthline.

Lin says these monitoring devices act as accountability coaches while promoting personal safety and encouraging self-monitoring and biofeedback as well as personal responsibility by increasing overall understanding of what’s going on inside the body.

“Pedometers and other devices allow people to monitor that activity for progress themselves,” said Dr. Larry Nolan, a sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It also provides a means to share with healthcare professionals some data points as well.”

“Even if the tracker isn’t perfectly estimating your distance covered or steps taken, it can provide a platform to compare days/activities,” he told Healthline.

“I believe it’s important for people to recognize that it may be difficult for them and to again make it about their own personal journey,” said Nolan.

“The same motivating factors for your family or friends may not work for you,” he added. “Take an introspective look and prioritize what you want first.”

Nolan reminds us again that this is a journey.

“You don’t need to go from 100 steps on your pedometer to 15,000 steps the next day. Once you have prioritized your goal, start with small modifications,” he advised.

Nolan’s fitness goal-setting tips include:

  • Add in walks during your lunch break or short walks after dinner or before you start your day.
  • Understand that it can be difficult with family and work obligations, but your health needs to be a priority in your life.
  • Remember that setbacks or injuries are OK.
  • Don’t forget to reward yourself.
  • Focus on positive moves (i.e., if you’ve increased 1,000 steps even though you’re not at your goal yet).
  • Try to be better the next day.

If you tend to fixate on numbers or goals, you may be wondering if a fitness tracker is really your healthiest choice.

“Any habit practiced to an extreme where it begins to inhibit and disrupt personal inner peace, even if it is exercising, is possible,” said Lin.

This means people who are prone to fixating or obsessing may need to be careful with trackers.

Nolan explains that people with certain personality traits may also benefit or find the data overwhelming.

“It’s possible for people to allow the information to consume or alter their eating habits or rely too heavily on the information,” he said.

For example, some people may tend to eat more thinking they’ve burned a certain number of calories that may be overestimated, he says.

“Another may constantly think about the data and impact negatively on their health goals,” he said.

Lin agrees while offering a possible solution.

“Individuals that may become extremely fixated on certain aspects of digital fitness trackers or biometric tools should consider adopting a meditation or yoga practice that will help balance and calm the often overworked mind,” she said.

“This will help increase possible cognitive inflexibility, alleviate excessive self-control, and raise self-compassion,” Lin explained.

Lin’s tips for using trackers without fixating on the numbers or goals:

  • Acknowledging and learning which disruptive compulsive characteristics to look out for, before they become an issue for you.
  • Listening to mindfulness or guided meditations or podcasts on how to calm the mind is beneficial (i.e., the “Braincation with Dr. Nancy Lin” podcast).

Fitness trackers may also be misleading in the way they present information or the way people interpret that information.

Nolan explains that he warns many clients, regardless of their medical history, to be careful with data trackers.

For instance, he says, some people walk 10,000 steps per day with their job. These steps are broken up and often not at a cardiovascular benefit. That same person using only the fitness tracker may think they have increased their activity, although they’ve simply begun to count the steps they were already taking.

“It can be useful information when utilized appropriately, but it’s also not an absolute,” said Nolan. “Everyone doesn’t have the same health or fitness goals, and past medical history may present certain limitations.”