Tuning In and Working Out

Fitness trackers are a new health trend. But does going high-tech with your workout help or hinder?

If you’re not sporting an activity tracker now, you’ve no doubt seen them on people all over L.A.—rubbery bracelets wrapping the wrist (Nike+ FuelBand SE, Jawbone UP, Fitbit Flex), tiny monitors encircling biceps (BodyMedia), or contraptions no bigger than a binder clip snapped onto pockets, belts, or bras (Fitbit Zip, Fitbit One). These tricked-out pedometers measure steps taken, distance traveled, and calories burned. But many do much more than that, using a system of sensors to log heart rate, body temperature, galvanic skin response (stress levels), and heat flux. The devices deploy complex algorithms to crunch the data (BodyMedia’s FIT boasts four types of sensors that capture 5,000 data points a minute). Via wireless syncing to a smartphone, tablet, or computer, they tell you the amount and intensity of your movement, the duration and quality of your sleep, and whether you worked off that second helping of tuna salad. While Google Glass and the development of smart watches—like Apple’s rumored and much anticipated iWatch—attract more attention, fitness trackers dominate the booming market in “wearables”: In 2013, some 16 million of them were shipped worldwide, and the market is predicted to grow to 485 million by 2018. Most wearables range from $60 to $150 apiece. If the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show is any indication, this push toward ever more sophisticated gadgets is only going to increase in ambition and scope: Think earbuds that track biometrics or contact lenses that monitor blood sugar levels.

Of course many an infomercial has been made about machines that promise to whip you into shape (have you donated that ThighMaster or Flex Belt to Goodwill yet?). Unlike those analog assists, activity trackers don’t just deal in wish fulfillment; they record what’s real—or at least a close approximation of what’s real, since side-by-side comparisons of trackers reveal inconsistencies in data. “It’s a sad reality to see how many steps you really take in a day,” says Jessica Druck, a social media producer and blogger who religiously wears her tracker. When the agency Druck used to work for gave Fitbits to employees, along with a companywide challenge to walk 10,000 steps a day, she was surprised by how few steps she was registering. “Before the Fitbit, I went to the gym when I had time, which wasn’t often,” she says. “Now I go five times a week so I can get my steps.”

The Fitbit brand accounted for 50 percent of global wearable band sales in the second half of last year. Aside from the dashboards that brim with nifty pie charts and graphs that break down data into candy-colored bits, a host of other online ways can assess a wearer’s progress. Fitbit users are awarded “badges” for milestones, and leaderboards can be updated with the fitness scores of your friends to encourage competition.

Like all technology, what fascinates some about activity trackers may intimidate others. “Less than half of my clients who use them actually stick with it,” says Cindy D’Andrea, a personal trainer and coach based in Beverly Hills. “There’s often a glitch in operating with the hardware or software, and it becomes too complicated.” After almost 30 years of helping people get in shape, D’Andrea believes the key to staying committed is in keeping exercise routines simple. “Sure, there’s a place for these, but there’s the possibility that an activity tracker becomes just another distraction,” she says. Instead, for people who want to watch what they eat, she prefers old-fashioned measures such as keeping a written food diary. “That way you have to sit down and think about it,” she says. “You can’t just preselect from a menu.” Or scan a product’s bar code, which is a service some trackers provide.

There’s no regulation on wearables, by the FDA or other outside sources, and no major studies have been done to show whether they improve health in the long term. In August New York senator Chuck Schumer used the phrase “privacy nightmare” when he called for the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the data collected by trackers. Between all the wearables and apps, a large amount of individual fitness data exists online. And that data, like most big data, can be shared or sold to third parties. “Imagine an insurance company, a hospital, an employer having access to this kind of data—heart rates, for instance. Is this something people feel comfortable with?” asks attorney Dean Hansell, a partner at Hogan Lovells in Century City, whose practice handles privacy and data protection cases. Hansell points out that the new generation of wearables—ones that employ linked systems like apps that share data or use third-party applications—are of particular concern.

“This is a new area with apps and devices that can collect a lot of health data about an individual,” Hansell says, “and we aren’t dealing with the most sophisticated tech, so safeguards aren’t in place.” He advocates using only localized versions of fitness trackers that don’t connect to a larger system or aggregate data online (or even hook up to a hub). This is also what D’Andrea recommends, but for a different reason: simplicity. For a cautionary tale about privacy, look back to 2011, when about 200 Fitbit users who logged in sexual activity as part of their exercise regimen found that their records show up in a Google search, including whether the session had been a “passive, light effort” or an “active and vigorous” one. Since then, Fitbit has improved the default privacy settings of its trackers.

Anne, a Canadian journalist I approached after spotting her wearing a BodyMedia FIT monitor at Trader Joe’s, has a problem many of us wish we had: Her tracker told her she wasn’t taking in enough calories to compensate for her activity level. She also discovered that she was sleeping only about four good hours a night when she thought she was getting eight. “My priority is to get my sleep back,” she says. As we stood in the produce section, she pulled out her phone to show me the layout of her data. And while I know how many hours of sleep she got the previous night, she did not wish to share her last name because of what one might call the Google Glassification of activity trackers. “Once, standing in line here, a guy slapped me hard on the arm and said, ‘What’s that?’ ” she says. “He was mocking it—and me—in front of his girlfriend.” We hypothesize about why. What was he so threatened by? Anne says something that strikes me: “Any time you try to take on a healthier lifestyle, it aggravates some people around you.”

As one who has postponed getting in shape for several years now, I admit that part of the skepticism I have about these devices is sour grapes. When I see fit people wearing them, I feel the same envy I do when listening to a first-time novelist speak or when hearing about an acquaintance who ran a marathon: I know what they just did took time and dedication, and I wish there were a way I could do it, too, but without all the work.