For some, a fitness tracker represents the best way to keep track of progress during exercise. Then there are also those who regard it as an electronic novelty.
But are fitness trackers a credible way to track parameters such as calories expended, heart rate, as well as steps taken per day?
In January, fitness tracker company Fitbit was hit with a class action lawsuit in the United States which claimed that Fitbit’s two devices, the Charge HR and the Surge, were significantly inaccurate.
A study done by the California State Polytechnic University in May showed that those devices got the readings wrong by up to 40 percent. A separate study by Ball Sate University on the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP24 showed underestimated calorie burn for sedentary activities, in addition to overestimating figures during vigorous exercise.
But despite this, some users are choosing to hold on their fitness devices.
Singapore-based expatriate Matt Baker, 31, uses Fitbit’s Charge HR to track his calorie expenditure during exercise, as well as the number of steps he makes per day.
Despite knowing about the limitations of his device, Baker has no qualms about continuing to use his Charge HR as part of his fitness goals: “It has been a great device for me so far as it really helps me keep track of my food. My daily goal is to hit 10,000 steps a day.”
The avid jiu-jitsu practitioner added: “It’s quite motivating to see myself hit the numbers and see how it contributes to weight loss. I’ve lost about 5 kilogrammes since I started using it last month.”
Having managed his expectations on what the device can or cannot do, Baker insists his Fitbit works well for the level of exercise he does regularly: “I don’t mind its limitations because if I really wanted to engage in serious activities where I really needed better heart rate monitoring, I would have gotten a dedicated heart rate monitor instead.”
“The Fitbit for me has just been a motivation to watch my food intake and hit the steps I need per day,” he added. “It gives me a rough gauge to keep working hard at my goals, as I can now visibly see the data from my weight loss.”
Regular road cyclist Simer Narulla uses his Fitbit to gauge when he should kick up his pace when he rides. He admits the exact figures for his cardiovascular data are not crucial. Instead, having a feel of when to speed things up, counts as one of the more important functions of his fitness tracker.
“The inaccuracies of my Fitbit are not ideal, but I work around it by looking at its data as a rough reference to track my progress.”
He added: “If my resting heart rate generally is higher than usual, I would know that something is not right. If it’s too low, I’ll then know it’s time to boost my efforts.”
There are some however, who feel that they should get what they are paying for.
“Yes, it does matter to me if the fitness tracker does not work as advertised,” said Xiaomi Band user Sheryl Koh.
“When you purchase a fitness tracker which promises something, you would trust that it will work and track the data accurately. Otherwise, what is the purpose in having it?”
She added: “But it also depends on how severe the inaccuracy is. If it is too much, then I’ll feel cheated as well.”
IS INACCURATE DATA DANGEROUS?
While inaccuracies may not matter to the average healthy person who exercises, experts cautioned those with heart problems from relying solely on fitness trackers to measure their heart rates.
According to Dr Bala S Rajaratnam from Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Health Sciences, the body represents the best indicator of when to stop exercising.
He said that fitness trackers in general are not intended to replace a medical device: “As compared to an Electrocardiogram (ECG), (fitness trackers) measure heart rate inaccurately.”
“It should not be used by people with heart conditions or on beta-blockers medication to estimate their heart rate. They should instead get their health checked using the ECG as the diagnostic tool to measure electrical pulse activities of the heart.”
He added: “If they feel uncomfortable, they themselves should make the call to stop exercising.”
Dr Jeremy Chow, who is a Cardiogist at Gleneagles Hospital Singapore, believes having a rough guide does help in certain cases, especially during physical exertion: “No fitness tracker to date can claim that the readings obtained can be used to make any diagnosis. But heart-rate monitoring is still somewhat useful during exercise.”
“In fact, I have picked up heart rhythm issues in some of my patients who are avid runners, when their fitness tracker shows erratic heart rate.“
Fitness trainer Marcus Fam believes it all boils down to what one’s goals are, when it comes to relying on fitness trackers: “What (fitness trackers) do very well is that it connects with an entire support system of apps and programs which track your lifestyle, much like a fitness dashboard.”
He added: “Psychologically it provides motivation for individuals with specific fitness goals. Add to the fact that its users have invested money into their respective devices, it does tend to lead them to commit to previously set goals.
“In terms of cardiovascular exercise, it definitely does help and is one of the better products in the market.”