Opinion: The Dangers of Fitness Trackers

“How many calories did you burn?” 

This is often a question you get from your workout buddy or hear after your group fitness class.

Smart watches and fitness/activity trackers have taken over the industry by storm. It seems as though everyone in a fitness class or on a run is wearing a smartwatch or activity tracker. And for great reason — they can track your mileage, heart rate, intensity, duration, and a few other key metrics depending on the make and model.

There’s no denying that these little devices can boost motivation, add accountability, and provide a fun social experience to fitness when you compete and share your activity with your friends. 

But here’s the problem: None of these trackers measure quality.

Quality can be measured in many different ways. Depending on your goal or perspective, a quality workout might simply mean a certain caloric burn, a certain amount of miles run or biked, or reaching a target heart rate.

But those are response-based metrics. They’re a result of activity independent from what you are actually doing. Burning calories happens for all types of movement, it’s not specific to a particular activity.

Sure, you can often select the type of workout you’re doing with these trackers which may measure your workout slightly differently for each, but that said, these internal measures are not based whatsoever around your movement quality. They’re predominantly related to your heart rate measurement, and some mathematical calculations based on your input height and weight.

Movement quality is measured by fluid mobility through a range of motion in joint systems, proper form and activation of muscle groups when performing specific exercises, stability of your joints, etc.

A 45-minute, high intensity workout might burn over 300 calories, to which your watch will say: “Great work!” Which is great, especially if it fits your goal(s). Moving more in any capacity is always a good thing. But as we push ourselves a little harder, as our frequency of exercise increases, fitness trackers will still give you the same data points. From body-weight squats during your first fitness class, to loaded squats with 100lbs of weight on your back, the scope of your data will still be limited to (more or less) calories burned, duration, heart rate. 

But what about what’s happening outside of your workout intensity? Do the data points accurately measure the progress you’ve made towards your goals, or do they seem disconnected? 

For example, if your goal is to gain strength, you might not appear to be burning many calories during your workout. Strength training workouts do not elicit the same response as, say, a circuit training class, because your heart rate will stay relatively low. If you look at your watch after a strength session and see that you only burned 250 calories, this could concern or even demotivate you.

A key component of strength training, however, is movement efficiency, or learning optimal movement patterns to generate the most force. Are you expressing movement quality or proficiency during your circuit training or strength training class?

If you’re trying to chase calories and want to get as many reps in as you possibly can to get the highest calorie burn, you might just be one rep closer to an injury.

This isn’t to paint some doomsday scenario or use scare tactics to convince you to stop paying attention to your fitness trackers. Because they in fact can be extremely helpful tools as outlined when it comes to motivation, social engagement, daily movement and general activity tracking, and more. 

Put simply, as the emphasis on exercise and daily activity continues to grow, we must become wary of the adverse side effects of exercising with faulty movement patterns – as they do actually exist in a very real way. Injury through repeated stress, adverse muscular adaptation and imbalances, and a whole host of other risks are associated with poor movement quality, which is something your fitness tracker does not track or take into account. 

It’s true, moving more will almost always produce a positive result, but begin to look a bit deeper than your heart rate and your calories burned.

Redefine what it means to have a “good workout.”

If you’re tired one day and your watch tells you for the same workout you did last week, you burned a hundred fewer calories, don’t let that discourage you or make you believe that was a bad workout. 

If you focus on movement quality, work within your limits for each day, and exercise at all in the first place, you are on your way to a happier and healthier life, regardless of what your fitness tracker says.

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