Wearable Fitness Trackers – Measuring the Worth of a Rapidly Growing Trend

PHOTO CREDIT: MEGAN MILLER
PHOTO CREDIT: MEGAN MILLER

Ashleigh Pulkoski-Gross has only been running for five years. Within that time, she has participated in 12 5K runs, four 10K runs, eight 5-mile runs, six half-marathons, and one sprint triathlon.  She says she routinely exercises both outside and at the gym, and frequently participates in the fitness classes offered at Stony Brook University. She is currently working towards her Ph.D in Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology.

Pulkoski-Gross has also become a devoted user of one of largest trends on the market today – wearable fitness trackers – to which she contributes much of her fitness success.

“I use it during almost every workout and would not be able to train appropriately for my races if I didn’t have it,” Pulkoski-Gross wrote in an email. “Phone applications used for tracking miles tend not to be as accurate, at least in my hands, as compared to my watch.”

She currently wears the Garmin Forerunner 405 – its capabilities include a wireless heart monitor to track heart rate and calories burned, and is also GPS enabled, which allows her to track her miles. On Amazon, the Garmin Forerunner 405 costs 140 dollars – but depending on the brand or its capabilities, these wearable devices can range from 50 to upwards of 700 dollars.

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The Garmin Forerunner 405

According to Dean Bowen, Assistant Director of Campus Recreation for Fitness and Wellness at Stony Brook University, you get what you pay for, but regardless of how expensive, fitness trackers cannot replace the more traditional monitoring methods.

“It’ll never take away from that professional, experienced personal trainer, or that experienced registered dietician or nutritionist that’s working directly with the person,” Bowen explained. “We can assess and ask more questions than that wearable device will.”

At least for now. Emerging digital technology seems to be serving the public well, especially in the sphere of health. In March, Apple announced the launch of its app “ResearchKit,” which allows doctors and scientists to gather more research on diseases such as asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Parkinson’s Disease simply by asking iPhone users if they’d like to participate in health studies. If users agree, these doctors and scientists have access to the data within the user’s “Health app” – weight, blood pressure, glucose levels – compatible with the latest Apple product: the Apple Watch, which also serves as one of the newest wearable fitness devices.    ResearchKit

The Apple Watch Sport has two modes: Activity and Workout. The Activity Mode tracks basic movement throughout the day, while the Workout Mode is designed to specifically monitor more rigorous movement, measuring distance, pace, time, and calorie burn. The device comes equipped with GPS capability, an accelerometer that can calculate steps, and a heart rate sensor.

But while major companies like Apple, Garmin, Fitbit, or Polar Electro may tout their product’s efficacy or design as unique to their competitors, the user must question whether these claims are true.

Bowen, who has been a serious athlete throughout his life and attended the SUNY College of Brockport for both his Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Physical Education, explained that many of these devices’s “features” can be misleading, especially based on the type of activity one completes.

Though heart rate monitoring is beneficial, a measurement taken from an individual’s wrist will not be nearly as precise as a measurement taken from one’s chest – and a high heart rate may not be caused by rigorous exercise, consequently leading to their estimated caloric burn being inaccurate.

Despite his devotion to fitness, Bowen does not use a wearable fitness device.

“The big issue that I have with them, and mainly why I don’t use one – they’re only as good as you are,” Bowen said.


Here is some movement from the Stony Brook campus that can’t be measured. These three clubs at SBU aren’t concerned with following trends – they approach fitness in an alternative way. 


He went on to explain the error in an accelerometer measurement, “All it does is track movement” but it’s unable to identify the exact type of movement. In the case of yoga or pilates, where there is a minimal amount of vigorous activity, these devices may conclude that the individual burned less calories than they actually did because of the technology’s limitation.      

In order to compensate for this limitation, many of the devices require the user to self-report – though error can be found in self-reporting data – their fitness and health information into compatible applications to keep the wearable device updated and accurate.

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Fitmotion Activity Tracker

“You’re going to get an idea of how much your moving based on the data these things are collecting,” said Ryan Parks, who has been a product buyer for Sound Around U.S.A. for over a year and managed the development of a “cheapie” fitness wearable called the Fitmotion Activity Tracker. “Obviously if it’s moving around more, you’re doing more, you’re burning more calories, and you’re being more healthy.”   

  

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