The Pulse


No Gimmicks : Why don't fitness trackers make you fitter?

by Patrick Reynolds

To kick off the 2015 Kenzai training season, we ran a #nogimmicks campaign on facebook and twitter. The idea was simple. People sent in photos of the products they'd bought but which failed to get them in shape. We then sent them a discount code for Kenzai Body. I wanted to call the campaign "send us your crap, get your body back" but was told by multiple people that this was a lame name. Lame!? More like awesome!

The campaign is over now, and over the next few months I want to explore the kinds of things people submitted and why they aren't resulting in the desired fitness outcomes.

A ton of people submitted failed fitness trackers.


This week we'll talk about why these expensive gadgets don't get results!

Data needs context

The wearable activity tracker market has ballooned in the last 5 years, and with the coming Apple watch it'll become even more mainstream. Most of these devices track your daily step count, heart-rate, sleep patterns, or a combination of all three. Tracking your activity isn't a bad thing. We should never fear data. But data needs context.

The atmospheric pressure on Mars is about 600 pascals, the gravity is 3.711 meters per second squared, and the mean density is 3.95 grams per cubic centimeter. This is data without context, and it's not interesting or useful.

But if I tell you the atmospheric pressure is .6% that of Earth, the gravity is 3 times lighter than what we're used to, and that Mars is the least dense of the four terrestrial planets (with Earth being the most dense), you now have some context and the data has become interesting.

 And if you want to land a 900 kg robot on Mars with a hovering jet crane, this data moves from interesting to useful. Mission critical in fact.

In exactly the same way, knowing that you walked 8140 steps on Monday with a heart-rate of 135 and 9620 steps on Tuesday with a heart-rate of 128 is not particularly valuable data without the right context.

With a tracker you might learn a few things about your activity patterns, and you might be inspired to move a bit more, but you'll mostly be getting data for data's sake. To actually get an improved fitness result you have to have a mission, with identifiable steps along the way. Then and only then does tracking data start to become interesting or useful.

Most people don't have that plan for their fitness. They buy one of these gadgets thinking it will move the needle and end up tracking nothing more than the bad habits and poor choices that inspired them to buy the tracker in the first place.


Let's get real about step counting. You are a human being. You excel at three things. Thinking, manipulating 3D objects, and walking. In our sedentary world, there's a lot of encouragement to "get out there and walk!" as if walking was an activity to be proud of. Walking is not exercise. Your entire musculoskeletal system is designed around being able to walk long distances while expending minimum energy.

A full hour walk on flat terrain will use around 250 calories. That's a small order of fries, a latte, or a slice of pizza. If you walk an hour to your local pizza place, have two slices, then walk an hour home you've made zero fat loss progress despite spending two hours "exercising". To get any kind of fitness result from walking you will either need to walk for hour upon hour every day, or have your nutrition plan on lockdown with no cheating or slip-ups. Most people don't have time for the former or discipline for the latter. 



Walking is not exercise.

This means you don't get to claim walking as a fitness activity. It should be a given, just part of the background of your daily activities. So why track it? It's like counting the number of breaths you take a day. There's no utility to knowing this number in such a granular way.

Heart-rate tracking

There's a lot of back and forth about leveraging your heart-rate to maximize fitness results. We spent the 90's trying to keep our heart-rates in the "fat burning zone" of 50-60% of our top heart-rate, and these days it's all about getting a super high heart-rate with HIIT style workouts that alternate between moderate and extreme exertion. 

The truth: the effects of different heart-rates on fat burn and fitness results is exceedingly marginal. By paying close attention to your heart-rate you might juice an extra 1 to 3 percent of effect from your exercise. This type of micro progress will be wiped out for the entire week by an errant cookie or glass of wine. The only types of people who need to worry about their heart-rate are those competing in the last 5 yards of fitness where incremental gains are meaningful because every other variable has been maxed out. This probably isn't you. It's certainly not me. 

When your diet is spotless, your muscle mass is high, and your body fat is in the low teens, then and only then is it useful to get into heart-rate tracking. Otherwise you're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.


Sleep tracking

Like walking, tracking your sleep is less useful than you think. Learning that you're restless between 2 and 3 am is not a particularly actionable piece of data. You'll get a lot further implementing basic "sleep hygiene" and simply noting how your energy and alertness feel the next day. I've met people who track their sleep and are now in a bizarre relationship with the data. They wake up and see in the data that they had a restless night, and despite how they're actually feeling they adopt a position of being tired and cranky. This is very weird.



The elephant in the room

These trackers will continue to proliferate, promising glossy hi-tech solutions to your fitness woes. But what they absolutely don't want you to think about is how your physical activity is the least important part of your health spectrum. When it comes to results, your diet and nutrition is 80% of the battle. Exercise is a secondary concern, and has the most margin of error. If your diet is on point, it doesn't really matter what kind of exercise you're doing, you're going to look and feel great. If your diet sucks, you can exercise all day long and see minimum improvement. You can't out-exercise a bad diet.

But the average consumer gets the 80/20 relationship backwards. Fitness products like these trackers scream EXERCISE! and in tiny letters in the back of the manual they throw in, "along with a balanced diet." It's easy to get people excited about a new exercise system or piece of training equipment. etting people to eat their vegetables... not so sexy, and much, much harder.

Thanks to everyone who submitted their failed fitness trackers as part of the campaign! You don't need these gizmos to get in shape, they are mostly distracting, and in many cases get you so dialed into numerical evaluations of your progress that you lose touch with the things that matter more; what you eat, how you look, how you perform, and how your energy levels hold up throughout the day.

None of this is a surprise. Smart people come to these realizations on their own. Which is why most trackers aren't sitting on the wrists of healthy people, but in dark drawers and closets along with all the other fitness gear that didn't work.

Read the rest of the #nogimmicks series! Get the truth about Diet pills, Fitness Gear, and Detoxes!



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