Do Fitness Trackers Help Clients Get Healthy?

by Jeffrey Siegel on Mar 18, 2015

My client Mary walks into the gym and I ask her how she is feeling and whether she has stayed active. With a sigh, she tells me she’s made her step goal every day and has the logs to prove it. I applaud her accomplishment, but when I look closely at her tired face, I see that she is not doing as well as her steps might indicate.

What’s going on? Mary tells me that hitting her daily step count is often a burden and usually leads to more snacking throughout the day. Not only that, but work is stressing her out and she spends most of her walk ruminating over criticisms from her boss.

I pause for second, since I was the one who recommended she wear an activity monitor. I’ve found that the monitors can keep clients accountable when we are not together.

I now see that what was supposed to be a beneficial nudge to get her moving has caused more harm that good. It’s clear that many of Mary’s steps were taken in a state of resentment, obligation, discomfort or stress.

Her experience highlights how a technology-driven pursuit of fitness, with its numerical goals and statistical solutions, can sometimes be counterproductive to health. Getting caught up in Mary’s activity data while neglecting other dimensions of her well-being has brought me face to face with a simple truth: No matter what an activity tracker says, not all steps are created equal.

How Do These Bits Fit Into Personal Training?

For personal trainers and couch potatoes alike, the ability to quantify our lives is powerful. However, when we become so engrossed in hitting our daily or monthly numerical targets, we can easily overlook the quality of our activities. The question is not whether activity monitors and daily step goals can help us establish new healthy behaviors; evidence says they can. A systemic review of over 26 studies found that pedometer users increased their physical activity walking by nearly 1 mile per day while also lowering their body mass index and blood pressure. This result, however, was seen only when people were given a daily step goal to hit, suggesting that data from activity monitors is not sufficient in and of itself to change people’s behavior (Bravata et al. 2007).

The question therefore remains: For our clients, and ourselves, how do we incorporate the data from these devices into a holistic framework of well-being that doesn’t promote fitness at the expense of health?

Appreciating the Complexity of Mind, Body and Lifestyle

With exercise, understanding the contextual lifestyle factors of sleep, stress, nutrition and attitude is important because they influence the dosage of activity (frequency, intensity time and type, or F.I.T.T.) that will produce the desired effects.

For example, a leisurely walk in a calm, natural setting with good company is likely to elicit the relaxation response in the body, producing a different neurochemical and hormonal response than a stressful walk would.

This is not to say we’d be better off living in the woods, nor should we overextrapolate that the effects of exercise are all in our heads. When technology promises to help us move more so we can live better, we must not assume that taking "x" number of steps per day is going to benefit our health until we’ve considered the F.I.T.T. aspects and the subjective experience (e.g., attitude, emotions, mindset) of those steps.

The Pitfalls of Data-Driven Exercise

Data tracking can be a useful first step in behavior change; clients can’t change a current pattern until they become aware of it, and an activity monitor lets them see what they are doing. But an overquantified approach to fitness has pitfalls. As a fitness and wellness professional, you can teach your clients to recognize and address them:

The "more-is-always-better" attitude is flawed. As the adage goes, "More isn’t better. Better is better." Clients need to understand how their effort to "go the extra mile" and log more steps may be counterproductive if it leads to compensatory eating, mental distress or physical burnout.

Tracking data is not sufficient by itself to accomplish lasting change. Data tracking raises awareness of behavior patterns and can prompt clients to begin the process of change, but on its own, is not enough to establish new, positive behaviors. If clients are to develop sustainable health habits, the mental and emotional aspects of behavior change must also be addressed.

For more on helping clients to get the most from their steps and devices, plus a complete reference list, please see "Stepping Out of Fitness Reductionism" in the online IDEA Library or in the March 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Siegel

Jeffrey Siegel IDEA Author/Presenter

I consider myself an astute student of human nature, a heath geek, and lover of movement. After suffering from an eating disorder as a teenager, I was driven to learn all I could about creating a healthy mind-body relationship. My academic background in neuroscience and biology in conjunction with graduate work in Buddhism and developmental psychology, allows me to fuse fitness with a scientifically and spiritually grounded whole-person approach to healthy living. I now run an integrative health coaching and personal training business in Boston, helping people develop and sustain healthier habits for happier lives.