How NOT to use fitness wearables

With the current rate of technological improvements and frequency with which new brands are landing on the market it seems impossible to keep up with the latest and greatest in the world of wearables (referring to both fitness tracker and smart watches). Whether it's a watch, band, patch or even ring, each of these wearables makes claims to support health as well as providing tools to improve your workout routines, and consumers cannot get enough. Research conducted in 2019 indicated that over one fifth of all Americans wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker, and with the upwards trend in wearables sales over the last 2 years it would be reasonable to assume that this is now a very modest estimate. But what if all that glitters is not gold? In this blog I’m going to focus on 3 negative consumptions behaviours that I have witnessed in both myself and through the habits and comments of people I train that I believe highlights a nefarious side of wearables technology that doesn’t receive enough airtime.

Before diving into these observations I first want to share my own experience and personal opinion about wearables to add nuance in this argument. My journey with wearables began two years ago with the purchase of a Garmin Forerunner. At the time I was training for a half marathon and decided this would be a helpful tool to track the progress of my runs as well as my heart rate during aerobic workouts. After a short while I bought an additional chest strap as I was unsatisfied by the accuracy of the heart rate data being recorded in non-running activities. This is a well known limitation of wearables worn on the wrist as activities that involve clenching the fist can impact the capillary blood flow to that region, which is what the optical heart rate monitor relies on to collect data.

About 6 months ago I decided to sign up for a WHOOP 3.0. WHOOP is a newer wearable that is focused on quantifying the user's level of recovery based on data points such as heart rate variability, resting heart rate, sleep debts, etc. While WHOOP does offer activity tracking, my primary use is to inform how my body has responded to recent load with the intention to then scale my training based on how primed my body is.

As you can see I am certainly an advocate for wearable tech. I wear bands on both arms, am satisfied enough to pay a monthly subscription (required for the WHOOP) and engage with the data on a daily basis. This is what I perceive as being a productive use of wearables that is aligned with the aforementioned general value propositions. Unfortunately, I believe many of us who buy into these products fall into behaviours and dependencies that are less proactive and even threaten to erode the enjoyment of training or have a detrimental impact on mental health. Having learnt through trial and error over the last 2 years here are 3 ways that you should not be using your wearable.

Do not treat the calorie counter as gospel

In my experience as a personal trainer I have observed that a crucial element of client satisfaction is the feeling of accomplishment they get at the end of a session or training cycle. It is because of this desire that I believe there is a growing obsession with calories measures to validate the intensity of the workout and the level of effort displayed. In fact it’s not uncommon to speak to clients who will actually use calorie expenditure to determine the duration of their workout - only stepping off the treadmill when a target is reached.

As an advocate for eating to your energy needs I agree that awareness over calorie expenditure is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight. My concerns lie in the degree of trust placed on the accuracy of these readings due to cognitive biases. As the majority of users have little prior knowledge of energy expenditure there is a tendency to place complete trust in the accuracy of calories readings because of preconceived impressions of companies such as Garmin and Apple as being leaders in this field - this is known as the Halo Effect. Unfortunately this trust is misplaced as research demonstrates that even the most accurate wearables for calculating energy expenditure had an error rate of more than 20%. It goes without saying that this is a substantial differential that could easily undermine body recomposition efforts.

If you do choose to calorie count, instead consider using an average expenditure to determine calorie requirements. While the trial and error process may seem archaic it’s a tried and tested way to set you on a pathway towards success.

Do not let your exercise routine and behaviours be dictated by the wearable

Don’t be fooled by the altruistic value propositions of wearables, at the end of the day there is a company aiming to make a profit and the best way for them to achieve this is by turning you into a repeat customer. In the saturated market of wearables brands use different strategies to engage their customers, some will focus on the UX of the app, others will claim to have better tech. However there is one strategy that is used unanimously and that is the gamification of the customer experience.

Many of you would be familiar with reaching step goals (FitBit), closing the rings (Apple) or hitting a daily strain target (WHOOP), each of these represents an attempt by each brand to gamify your engagement with the product. By creating goals for their users (some of which are completely arbitrary such as standing for 1 minute per hour for 12 hours) brands are orchestrating opportunities for the customers to achieve milestones and experience a sense of accomplishment that we have previously discussed as being a precursor to a client's satisfaction.

Now you may be wondering what's wrong with this, as often these ‘goals’ relate to exercise and movement which is often the goal of a personal trainer. And yes I’d agree that encouraging movement is often a net positive, but these goals (like working to a calorie target) have no substance and do not reflect a good investment of your time. In a study of Fitbit wearers by the Conversation they found 79% felt under pressure to reach their daily targets and more alarmingly that 59% believed that their daily routines were controlled by Fitbit. Read that again.

Wearables should enrich your training experience and help you progress towards your goals, instead people are looking to their wearable for validation, which begs the question of whether they are training for their health or to finish the game on their watch.

Do not let the fitness tracker get in the way of common sense

In the pursuit of more accomplished training data people are pushing themselves for longer and harder than they would if there wasn’t an extrinsic motivator. This is something I empathise with greatly; gamified milestones aside, it’s deeply satisfying to see an objective improvement in your performance such as personal best in your 5km. Unfortunately this fixation with data can actually be to your detriment when it is cherry picked or not considered in the wider context of good health.

An important aspect of wearable tech not yet touched on is that many integrate or include features that allow you to share your performance with your network. By allowing you to share your performance on apps such as Strava wearables provide yet another channel for users to attain a sense of accomplishment through social recognition. While I firmly believe that achievements should be celebrated and shared it’s also important to recognise that progress isn’t linear. If you’ve spent time running or on an erg you’ll know that personal best efforts (usually) only come after sustained commitment to bouts of lower intensity output. Unfortunately, from my anecdotal experience I know that greater social validation comes when sharing the end result as opposed to the conservative but necessary steps of the journeys. This can lead users to disregard structure training protocols in pursuit of outcomes they are not yet ready for.

Blinded by the impressive data visualisations and variety of metrics you could be forgiven for thinking that wearables are a single source of truth when it comes to determining your health. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Health has many components with physical fitness representing only one element of your well being. Hence, relying on a wearable that is limited to a narrow view of health has the potential to lead to suboptimal decision making. I’ll use a scenario to illustrate this; imagine you’ve just broken up with your partner and your friends want to catch up and see that you are okay. Having missed a few sessions your watch is telling you that you’re well rested and primed for an intense workout; what your watch is missing is that in the interest of your mental health it would probably be beneficial to engage in a more social activity than to isolate further in a yourself solo workout.

Data is only as valuable as how you choose to use it. While wearables can support your decisions making they should not be the sole basis for your choices. If you don’t feel ready to train then listen to your internal monologue, I guarantee it’s more intune with your body than the strap on your wrist.

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