July 11, 2016

Evolving technology allows advancement in activity trackers for recording fitness activity.


Take a look around at the next meeting you attend or at the ball park this summer. It’s pretty much a given that someone near you will be wearing an electronic fitness tracker on his or her arm.

Trackers come in many sizes and designs, but all do the same thing – monitor and record a person’s fitness activity, the quality of your sleep, and in some cases, heart rate.

Many of the devices are synced wirelessly to computers or smartphones, making viewing your activity easier. There’s no need to enter any activity with the wearable trackers. It’s picked up and recorded automatically as you walk, run or participate in some other fitness activity.

Activity trackers aren’t new – they’ve just changed as technology has changed with them. People have penciled in journals and worn pedometers on their belts for years. But over the past decade since wearable trackers have been available, they’ve gotten smaller, sleeker and less expensive. By 2018, it’s estimated that almost $6 billion will be spent on wearable trackers.

Brad Awalt, MS, ACSM, manager of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Health Plus employee wellness program, said the first thing to consider when selecting a fitness tracker is whether you want to wear one and whether it’s worth the cost. If you don’t like wearing jewelry, you might not enjoy wearing a fitness tracker. “But if you don’t wear it, it won’t work,” he said.

“It’s like having a health coach on your wrist. They’ve really taken off in the market,” he said. “Every time I go into a store I’m amazed at how many new trackers are out there.”

Electronic activity trackers, which are fundamentally upgraded pedometers, use accelerometers and GPS transducers to calculate mileage, graph overall physical activity, calculate caloric expenditure, measure heart rate and quality of sleep.

If you don’t want to spend the money, there are independent smartphone and Facebook apps available for recording your activity. They are either free or available for a few dollars.

If an electronic activity tracker is what you choose, Awalt offered the following tips:

  • Material: If you have a metal or nickel allergy, some wearable trackers with metals that go next to the skin can cause rashes and might not be for you. You can select one that doesn’t have the metal piece that makes contact with your arm.
  • Budget: Decide how much you want to spend. Trackers cost between $50 and $200, and GPS watches sell for $130 to $400. If you just want to use an app on your smartphone, many are free or cost just a few dollars.
  • Features: Decide what you want it to do (record just steps, or steps and sleep patterns or do you want it to also show your heart rate and how many calories you’ve burned?). Some also can help you track your route. The cost goes up as more features are added.
  • Notifications: How do you want your tracker to let you know you need to add steps to your day? Some buzz to remind you, or simply flash a red line when you have been at your desk too long. Some have mock fireworks when you’ve met your goal.
  • Battery: Decide what’s best as far as battery life. Some wearable trackers need to be recharged every few days. Others use watch batteries that last a few months to a year.

Once you have selected a tracker, Awalt suggested the following:

  • Select your daily goal or let the tracker do it for you. You can always adjust if you find the steps are too many or too few, and the tracker makes adjustments as needed.
  • Consider making social connections with your device. You can compete with friends or family and share your information with them. A little competitive spirit is good for maintaining or upping your activity level.
  • Consider syncing your tracker to your employee wellness program if that’s an option. Many employers, like Vanderbilt, offer that opportunity for its employees.

Awalt said it’s also important to remember to clean your tracker often with a mild soap or detergent applied to a soft rag or alcohol on a cotton ball. Just remember that most can’t be submerged in water.