The pros and cons of wearable technology

Are you someone who chases the 10,000-step daily goal? Or do you impulsively look at your sleep data soon after waking up? Or smugly check out the calories you burn during a workout? 

You’re not alone — it seems more and more people see some sort of value in monitoring their health and fitness via wearable technology such as smartwatches, step counters, sleep trackers, ‘smart jewellery’ and smartphone apps. 

These wearable devices can help you track and monitor your physical activity, sleep, heart rate and other health-related metrics.

“Wearable fitness trackers have become increasingly popular in recent years as people seek to monitor and improve their physical activity levels,” Carol Maher, Professor of Population and Digital Health at the University South Australia, says. 

There’s little doubt anything that encourages people to live healthier lives is a good thing, and a 2019 study suggested wearable fitness devices have the potential to increase physical activity and may also prove to be an effective tool to assist health professionals to provide ongoing monitoring and support.  

However, we’re still not sure if these of devices help us get fitter and healthier by themselves, as opposed to a cherry on the top of a broader program.

Let’s dive into some of the pros (and later, cons) of these wearable devices.

Pros of wearable fitness trackers

Many studies have tried to investigate whether wearable activity trackers help in the areas they are supposed to. 

While the evidence isn't concrete — and it's hard to know exactly how these devices impact blokes because few studies look at men specifically — some of the proposed benefits include:

  • Increased awareness: Fitness trackers can prompt people to become more aware of their daily physical activity levels, as well as other metrics such as sleep quality, heart rate, and nutrition
  • Motivation: Wearable devices can motivate people to be more physically active and set goals to improve their health
  • Tracking progress: These devices allow users to track their progress towards their health and fitness goals, which can be a source of motivation and accountability
  • Social support: Some apps and devices allow you to connect with friends or family members to share your progress and provide support to one another

“We recently did a global review of all studies which have examined the effectiveness of wearable activity trackers on physical activity and health,” Maher says. “We identified 390 unique studies, involving a total of 164,000 participants. Taken together, the results showed that wearable activity trackers improve daily physical activity, body composition and fitness. 

“Effects on other outcomes such as blood pressure and cholesterol were generally smaller, and mixed (a mixture of small improvement, or no effect).”

These benefits, however, likely arise from using the devices as part of a broader health and fitness program; there’s no evidence to suggest they change users’ behaviour on their own.

Cons of wearable fitness trackers

Some people may find that these devices negatively impact their health. For example, someone with an eating disorder might be advised against tracking their food intake via an app. 

Some users may become obsessive about their data — for example, someone may be concerned about their sleep metrics, which then causes further sleep problems because the user is anxious about the next morning’s results.

Then there are others who might be so dependent on their device that they are impacted if it is unable to be used for a period. As one of Maher’s studies puts it, “current and previous wearable users experience more positive than negative affect related to their device while wearing it. When prevented from wearing their device, however, this pattern was reversed.”

Some of the proposed cons include:

  • Inaccurate data: While most devices will claim to provide super-accurate data for their users, that might not always be the case
  • Obsessive behaviour: Wearing a fitness tracker can sometimes lead to obsessive behaviour and a focus on achieving goals at the expense of other aspects of health and wellness, such as rest and recovery. People who monitor their nutrition via their smartphone are also at risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with calories
  • Cost: A barrier for some people is cost. While some devices are reasonably affordable, other units can be expensive, and some may require additional subscription fees for advanced features or data analysis
  • Not suitable for all activities: While wearables can track activities like running, walking, biking and so forth, not many offer the ability to offer data on resistance training, for example
  • Data security concerns: These devices continuously collect health information, and the collected data can be shared with third parties which can potentially be used for marketing purposes. Also, the risk of criminals accessing your data shouldn’t be neglected

Maher says there are some downsides for some users, but she believes the positives outweigh the negatives. 

“There has been quite a lot of attention in the media to the downside of wearable fitness trackers. For example, articles state that people may become overly focused on meeting their daily step count or other goals, which can lead to stress or burnout,” she says. 

“However, we did a study of 237 users of wearable fitness trackers, and the results were overwhelmingly positive, with the vast majority of participants stating that their wearable had positive impacts on them, such as feeling empowered, accountable and motivated. 

“One downside is that the devices are not accurate for certain types of activities, such as lifting weights and yoga, which can lead to frustration. Additionally, as with all technologies that have become a part of our lives, there are concerns about data privacy and security.”

Advice for those thinking about buying a wearable

If you don’t already own one of these devices, there’s lots to think about before taking the plunge: Do you really need one? Can you afford it? What are your motivations for using one? Will the device suit your chosen activities?  

If you do decide to buy one, there are some things to consider, according to Maher.

“I would recommend using a well-known brand rather than a no-name brand — the established brands have now had many models and iterations of improvements, and so have ironed out many software and usability frustrations you may experience with lesser-known brands,” she says. 

“But new users should keep in mind that wearable activity trackers are not a magic solution to achieving optimal health and fitness.  It is important to use the device in conjunction with other tools and strategies for physical activity.”

So while there’s no definitive evidence to suggest wearing these devices will magically boost your health and fitness, using them as part of a broader program could add some additional benefits.

As always, it’s good to chat with your GP or a medical expert before making significant changes to your health or fitness strategy.

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