Life&Style writer Ameek Gilhotra questions the accuracy and impact of fitness gadgets, taking research and medical advice into account
For a long time now, we have feared the unknown, doing everything we can to make things more tangible. It should not be surprising that our efforts have resulted in some products becoming excessive and redundant. We are tracking everything: the steps we walk, the breaths we take, the hours we sleep, the calories we eat and/or burn, and it is interesting that this behaviour is not considered ‘obsessive’ by most. Dedication to fitness is encouraged and people are praised when they have lost weight. This creates a whirlpool, capable of the sucking life out of a person, but much before that, the life out of exercise.
It is true that some people truly enjoy calculating their calorie consumption or loss, but many do not. Fitness gadgets like Fitbits, being wearable, add a dimension of convenience, easing and validating obsession. What is to be noted specifically is that research has shown that these calculations are often incorrect when it comes to calories. The lost calories might depend on the number of steps you take, but not on the time in which you did so, and this shows why calculations are prone to error.
The NHS reiterates this, stating, ‘fitness trackers remain useful for individuals to have an idea of how many calories they may have burned over a day, but it should be kept in mind that the devices are not always 100% accurate.’ Moreover, however universal it might seem, ‘calorie in’ and ‘calorie out’ is not a fool-proof way to monitor weight being maintained, gained, or lost. There are other nuances underlining the complex field of diet, and seemingly simple questions do not have simple answers.
Researchers from Stanford University in the US and the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm found that ‘in most settings, heart rate measurements were within acceptable error range (5%). In contrast, none of the devices provided estimates of energy expenditure that were within an acceptable range in any setting.’ The NHS says that ‘fitness trackers shouldn’t be relied upon if you’re trying to replace calories burned with a ‘treat.’ Increasing your activity and exercise levels on a long-term basis is more important than obsessing about exactly how many calories you may have burned during a single run or gym session.’
Nowadays, there is pressure to exercise for a certain amount of time, in a certain way, or for a certain fad. Many of these trends have proven successful, and can be encouraging, however all too often they are tied in with issues of body image and self-acceptance. Looking at a watch multiple times, and being reminded of how many calories you have lost or the number of steps you have taken, can increase anxiety. It is a method that ensures that your mind is simply never distracted from the fact that it must work to be fitter, if only physically so.
If we focus more on the quality of exercise rather than the quantity, different approaches can be pursued. One might argue that high-quality exercise, excessive and obsessive, undoubtedly results in a rapid calorie loss. However, should the ‘quality’ of exercise be more to do with how effectively we jump and run, or how happily we do it? Exercise doesn’t have to feel like a burden. If we can find ways to quantify something as complex as the energy our bodies consume, surely, we can find ways to make exercise more interesting, engaging, and fun.