Why Most Fitness Trackers Aren’t Very Good

Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple CEO Tim Cook | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

We recently found out that fitness trackers may not be a good purchase for people who enjoy exercising (or hope to find a form of exercise that they don’t hate), since researchers determined that measuring an activity can make it less enjoyable, and decrease your motivation to keep up with it. But maybe you’ve been running, biking, or otherwise working out in order to lose weight, or to get into shape for summer, and you’ve decided to shop for a fitness tracker anyway just to stay on top of the data. That sounds like a good strategy — until you learn that many fitness trackers are faulty and inaccurate.

Lauren Goode reports for The Verge that incomplete or inaccurate products are far too common in the market for digital health and fitness gadgets: Manufacturers will market a sports watch that tracks just one kind of physical activity (with the promise of more to come on a vague timeline), or a health-tracking app that you can only view on a small watch face (while leaving users to wonder whether they’ll ever ship a compatible mobile app). In her many experiences with consumer health and fitness products, Goode has found that many “have shipped as ‘ready’ when they’re really not.”

For the past couple of years, fitness trackers and health-related wearables have been shipping with major bugs that make them practically unusable, or with materials that make users itch or break out in rashes. Users have had problems even with high-profile devices like the Apple Watch, and Goode notes that when she tried to pair an Apple Watch with a new iPhone, she found that neither the Apple Health app nor the Activity app would work on the phone because it had been restored from what was likely a corrupted iCloud backup. “When did that happen? I don’t know; but I still need to troubleshoot that one.”

While it’s a well-known mantra in the software world to “release early, release often” or “launch and iterate,” Goode points out that “applying that philosophy to health and fitness products [is] not necessarily a good idea.” While most of the companies behind the fitness trackers and health-related wearables that you can purchase at your local (or virtual) electronics store will quickly note that they aren’t making medical-grade devices, or devices that could be substituted for medical devices, that isn’t an adequate justification.

Even though wearables with optical heart rate sensors, hardware to measure your breathing rate, or sensors to record your skin temperature “toe the line” by displaying biometrics instead of offering prescriptive advice, customers still expect quality and reliability when they spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of technology. Reviewers can test things that aren’t finished products, understand that what they’re getting is an early look at a product that’s still in beta, and even offer the developer feedback on what’s stopped working, but a general consumer doesn’t have that luxury.

By spending money on health or fitness wearables, users are trusting that the companies behind those products have at least ensured that those products will work. Goode notes, “some of them are using these products for legitimate health-monitoring reasons, not just digital distractions or ‘It would be nice if I could be a little more active.’ If they’re lucky, maybe the product they bought will work as promised right out of the gate,” she adds. “If they’re unlucky, though, they’ll be part of a feedback loop where they’re giving up plenty of personal health data for little in return — at least, until the company improves its product.”

As noted by Medical Daily, a recent study published by PLOS Medicine and conducted by researchers at Lancaster University, the University of the West of England, and Nottingham Trent University found that the health data generated by fitness devices “may not be good enough to rely on.” There’s little evidence of long-term benefits associated with keeping a fitness tracker strapped to your wrist, even though consumers with chronic conditions like diabetes, cardiac disease, depression, sleep apnea, Parkinson’s, obesity, anxiety, panic disorders, PTSD, or asthma could, potentially, use such gadgets to monitor their progress.

But for those without such chronic conditions, the researchers say that there isn’t much proof to support the marketing claims around health-tracking wearables, and note that wearables could even give users a false sense of security about their health. Wearables show large variations in accuracy, with error margins of up to 25%, and the researchers think that developers need to “open access to their data collection practices, analysis methodologies, and measurement concerns” in order to “address not only the issue of wearables’ reliability but also secondary concerns relating to data storage and [patient] privacy.”

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