How Important Is Fitness Tracking?

June 29, 2017

By Greg Vachon, MD, MPH

Fitness is a foundation of wellness. The impact of adding even modest exercise is greater even than losing weight. This is particularly so for those that are currently sedentary, and in the United States over a quarter of people, when they think back over the prior 30 days, report NO physical activity or exercise. Only 1 in 5 Americans report levels of exercise that meet federal guidelines. The medical community is awakening to the need to measure and encourage physical fitness, with Kaiser and the American Heart Association both advocating fitness becoming a new vital sign.

Given this enormous impact of fitness, and the urgent need for everyone to understand and measure their fitness, this past year has been a tough one for fitness trackers. Studies showed that randomizing groups to tracking or no tracking showed potential negative effects on those assigned to tracking their fitness with wearable devices. How could this be? One theory is that when people put effort into one activity (recording and paying attention to fitness), those same people reward themselves with something else. Perhaps an extra helping at dinner or a dessert when they would have had a healthy snack.

Whatever the reason, we know that fitness trackers are not a panacea. Tracking fitness, like counting calories for weight loss, can certainly help. And they help some people a whole bunch. In many people’s lives, tracking fitness can be a difference-maker. But to require wearable fitness tracking for everyone would be a mistake, as we can now predict some unintended consequences.

What is the answer? For such a key, fundamental aspect of health, an objective measure needs to be identified. Just like knowing your cholesterol, your BMI and your blood pressure are fundamental parts of making a plan with your doctor, so to a measure of fitness is needed. And then, with this measure (or measures) in hand, we need to give fitness the attention it deserves, right up there with quitting smoking and losing weight. Our national well-being depends on it!

Blog Home