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The wearable moment: Will fitness and activity trackers really make us healthier?


fitness trackers
Jawbone’s new Up Move (Photo: Jawbone)

According to my Misfit Shine, on Wednesday, January 7, I slept for six hours and 55 minutes, but only three hours and 33 minutes were “restful sleep.” On Monday, January 12, My Up by Jawbone congratulated me with “Way to start strong” after I logged 10,887 steps and 45 minutes of “cross-training” (AKA “Refine Method,” which was not a menu option).

There is data about my water intake on Nudge, my food choices on Noom, and my steps, sleep patterns, and workout sessions, just all over the effing place.

Confession: I have no idea what any of it means other than that I’m wasting a lot of workout and shut-eye time staring at a screen. (And did I mention my phone is dying?)

Welcome to the new era of wellness wearables. In the past few months, the market for fitness and health trackers has exploded. Jawbone introduced the Up Move and the Up3, Fitbit unveiled three new models, the Microsoft Band debuted, and Garmin announced the Vivofit 2, complete with bands designed by Jonathan Adler (to match your pretty leggings). Not to mention the smartwatches that also act as trackers, like the much-anticipated health-focused Apple Watch and the Sony SmartWatch, which works with GoogleFit.

With every new launch, you can track more—from steps to calories to the elevation you’re running at—and while the data is meant to be empowering and ignite healthy behavioral changes, recent research has shown that a huge percentage of users take them off and throw them in a drawer after six months.

Data, it turns out, is only as good as what you do with it.

“What companies really need to do—and are starting to do—is to take the data they’re collecting about you and make it useful,” says Samantha Murphy Kelly, a senior tech correspondent at Mashable who regularly reports on wearables. “Sure, you walked 10,000 steps and slept 7.5 hours, but what does that all mean and how can you improve?”

As in, “Okay Google, show me how to make all of my sleep ‘restful.'”

fitness tracker
Sporting the Misfit Shine tracker (Photo: Misfit)

Fine-tuning feedback

To address this issue, many of the trackers are working on building usable feedback into their apps, like alerts that tell you when you’ve reached goals (My favorite so far: “Your 10,003 steps so far are the equivalent of climbing the Eiffel Tower 6 times. Félicitations!”) or that you’re not on track to meet them and need to step it up (literally).

Taking the concept even further are third-party apps that sync with your tracker and pull in the data, like Nudge.

Nudge charts your wearable data and allows you to add more information, like meals and hydration level. It then gives you a numerical score, so you’re essentially being graded with each healthy (or unhealthy) decision you make. “It’s a really simple way of monitoring progress,” explains co-founder and CEO Mac Gambill. “You can just watch your score go up or down.”

Another example of this is weight-loss app Noom Coach, which just launched a partnership with Misfit. If you sync the two, you can see your steps and workouts alongside your meal choices, an option that might especially appeal to those who are already calorie-counters (although the caloric expenditure numbers provided by many of these devices can’t possibly be accurate without a heart-rate monitor).

Similarly, Weight Watchers recently partnered with Fitbit to marry food and fitness, and its new Coach program even allows users to chat with an expert about how to act on the info. “Giving tailored feedback, like a personal trainer, is something that can make fitness trackers more impactful on our everyday lives and overall health,” Kelly says.

Tapping experts

Speaking of personal trainers, many companies are counting on them to make the data meaningful for their clients. Gyms and boutique fitness studios are increasingly encouraging clients to sport wearables and are then adjusting their workout plans and creating goals based on the information. (Beware extra rounds of high knees if your Fitbit shows you skimped on steps.)

Nudge launched Nudge Coach, a companion app for trainers that allows them to chart their clients’ data 24-7. “It puts the technology in the hands of the health coach or the personal trainer,” Gambill explains. “We want to enable the health professional to understand the information that’s being collected and do something with it.”

The bottom line

Of course, most of these integrations require more apps, more time, and more dedication to making something of your quantified self, something the average consumer may tire of.

But even the glimmer of wearable fatigue suggested by Nike discontinuing its Fuelband turned into yet another example of more high-tech tracking to come: the company later revealed it did so in order to work with Apple on a more advanced device.

“Tech companies are focused more on health and fitness than ever before,” Kelly said, as she returned from the fitness-heavy CES conference. “Health and fitness gadgets grew a lot in 2014 and it’s only getting bigger.” Bigger won’t necessarily mean better health for the masses. But tools that make data-driven lifestyle changes easy might. —Lisa Elaine Held