Are fitness trackers worth it?

Calorie counting apps and pedometers can be useful. But before you become obsessive over the numbers, try tracking how your jeans fit first.

Dr Martin fitness trackers

Illustration, Casie Wilson.

Q: I love the idea of using fitness trackers, but sometimes it feels like life is becoming overly quantified. Are they worth it?

There is some good research that suggests that tracking helps people reach their goals, particularly when they’re trying to make changes to their lifestyle. For example, pedometers do help people be more active. And writing down everything you eat does make it more likely that you won’t overeat.

Some patients I see use apps to motivate them to start and maintain healthy changes. Others use technology in creative ways — like texting photos of everything they plan on eating to a buddy before digging in, to help stop mindless snacking and hold themselves accountable to healthier choices.

But enjoyment is also an important factor in making sure that those changes are sustainable over time. If you find that tracking steps or counting calories is oppressive or dehumanizing rather than energizing, you shouldn’t do it. If you have an obsessive edge to your personality, there’s also the possibility that tracking can do more harm than good.

Related: The downside of calorie-counting apps and health tracking

There is one thing, however, that is extremely useful to track: how your jeans fit. We all have that pair of jeans that feel great when, basically, we’re doing okay in life. It might be funny to think of that as the barometer, but really it’s as good a measure as any. It relates to your abdominal circumference, which is an absolute metric that pertains to people’s risk of mortality from coronary artery disease. And there’s an obvious link to self-esteem.

Here’s an example of a happy marriage of high- and low-tech strategies: When those jeans feel a bit too tight, tracking how much exercise you’re getting for a few weeks can be a useful tool to bring back the balance.

The question of how to make sustainable lifestyle changes is a difficult one, so I look forward to the day when tracking evolves past just being a numbers game. I once committed to taking the stairs only (my office at the hospital is on the sixth floor), and I lasted about five weeks. One day I was tired, so I took the elevator, and then I just kept taking it. Is it possible I would have done better if my personal device had called me on it? Possibly.

Maybe one day my watch will say, “I notice you’ve taken the elevator the last three days. Could you consider the stairs today?” That would be a good message — one that would likely make me slink to the stairwell and start climbing.

Doctor. Danielle Martin, Chatelaine columnistDr. Danielle Martin is a family physician and vice-president, medical affairs and health system solutions, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. 

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