Do fitness and nutrition trackers hurt or help?

Have you heard of the term “orthosomnia?” If you are a word searcher of any kind, you may be able to deduce that the term “somnia” may have something to do with our sleep. Ortho means “straight or right”. And it seems, thanks to wearable technology, people have become obsessed with data on hacking the perfect sleep.

I have always been extremely careful about measuring sleep. I am very aware of my sleep problems; I don’t need technology to help me remember a hard night’s rest. Every morning I have all the evidence I need under my eyes. Unless this technology can spit out a melatonin pill or automatically turn off all the blue lights in my room at 10pm, the data is useless and will just add to my stress.

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But without a doubt, many people like to have access to this data. They not only happily analyze their dream the next morning; they also use technology to track and record their training and nutrition. These tracking features are an ongoing craze in wearable fitness technology, and according to Fortune Business InsightsThe size of the fitness tracker market was 36.34 billion in 2020, growing at a whopping 19.5%.

However, cynical people like me ask this question – do we need sleep, nutrition and fitness trackers to improve our health and well-being?

First, let me tell you why relying on fitness trackers can be problematic. Then I’ll get into that when and for whom I can actually be of use.

The first problem is that the data itself is not particularly meaningful. They’re just numbers sitting there looking great on a chart until you use them for something meaningful. Let’s look specifically at sleep trackers. Does looking at your sleep data convince you to set your bedtime half an hour earlier that night? Does it remind you to dim the lights, turn off your blue light devices, and calm your parasympathetic nervous system to optimize sleep? In the same way, does looking at your exercise data inspire you to exercise more the next day or convince you to take a rest day the next day? The problem with accessing data is that it doesn’t always lead to action.

Another concern is whether you can review the data as objective information or are you embodying it? Maybe after a few nights of tracking your poor sleep patterns, you’re personalizing the outcome rather than changing your habits. Instead of “I slept badly”, you identify yourself as “sleeping badly”. Or, “my workouts haven’t been that intense lately” turns into “I’m not fit.” Data can become less about decision-making and more about you as a person, and overall, that’s tragically unfortunate. No technology should dictate who you are as a person. I can tell you, as a coach, that your identity plays a role in your future success, which I will discuss below.

The third thing is that the data can be wrong. Wearables are only as good as the technology and data behind them. For example, distance measurements can be inaccurate – a study titled Distance recording accuracy in eight positioning-enabled sports watches reviewed the top brands to find a discrepancy between the average average of 3.2-6.1%. According to Insider, the FDA recognizes a 20% disparity in calories listed on nutrition labels. If you’re using your data to make informed decisions about your diet or fitness regimen, you’re making decisions based on shifting sands.

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And finally, according to Mike Powell at Forbes, 42% of people stop wearing their fitness trackers within six months. This statistic corresponds to the fitness center dropout rate. This rapid decline in the number of users shows us that the data is starting to be exciting and new. However, it can be quickly forgotten or become demotivating over time. Tech companies are increasingly trying to gamify their trackers, allowing people to earn badges and join challenges to keep usage high. However, statistics show that a tracker is not a long-term solution for most people to stay fit.

After reading all of this, you can guess that I hate wearable trackers and find them useless when calibrating my lifestyle to fit your goals. Not at all — there’s a fairly large population of people who, when used properly, can benefit from wearable technology.

People with simple, clear goals related to their health and well-being can benefit from the general data collected on their devices. For example, if you want to run 5-10 km continuously, the data provided by your tracker can be invaluable in tracking your progress. Likewise, tracking your weekly trends is a great way to motivate yourself if you want to manage your consistency in the gym.

People who don’t overemphasize the numbers and look for general trends objectively do well with data trackers. They don’t get lost in the murky waters of exact numbers; they benefit from the awareness these numbers provide. They can keep their identities and feelings out of the equation and focus on the data. For example, they may have started using a calorimeter and suddenly become aware that they are dramatically overeating at dinner every night. That awareness can lead to an action plan that rebalances their diet.

The decision is ultimately yours. If you find that your motivation peaks when you review data about your life decisions and you can stay above obsessing over the numbers, use wearable technology or apps to improve your health and well-being. However, if you notice that you’re starting to slide down the negative slope of becoming obsessed with numbers and affecting how you see yourself, you’re probably better off not spending the money on a tracker.

Jen Thomas is a weight loss coach based in Chennai

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