For years I’ve wondered how I, a self-professed health nut, could possibly be gaining 10 pounds of pure flab per decade, just like every other average American woman. So when More asked me to test the latest wave of health and fitness trackers, I decided it was time to play the numbers game.
Why would that help? Because feedback on how you eat and move is one of the few tools proven to motivate you to make healthy lifestyle changes. In a study at the University of South Carolina, for example, participants who wore activity-monitoring devices and attended support groups for four months lost as much as triple the weight of those who attended groups but didn’t use the devices. And unlike old-school pedometers and heart-rate monitors, the newest gadgets are incredibly sensitive and comprehensive: They use brain wave monitors, galvanic skin sensors, 3-D technology—everything, it seems, except spells and incantations—to follow your behavior patterns around the clock. And in doing so, they raise your consciousness.
“One of the reasons so many people lead sedentary lives is that they lack awareness of how little physical activity they actually do,” notes Anind Dey, PhD, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of its doctorate program at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
And I, in my self-delusion, turned out to be one of them.
True, I used to work out like Rocky training for the title match, but that dedication ended nearly 15 years ago, when I became a single parent. What the trackers revealed is that today I am almost entirely sedentary, chronically sleep deprived and accustomed to consuming about twice as many daily calories as I burn. But a month of tracking my every move has changed all that. I began exercising more and eating less. I feel like Wonder Woman—and have dropped a full size in my jeans.
The trick is to choose the right device. Although the trackers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, they mainly differ in how much feedback they provide and how they deliver it, so choosing one is largely a matter of picking what kind of technology feels comfortable to you. Here’s how each of them did—and didn’t—help me.
TRACKS Steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned
COST $99; online coaching and in-depth data analysis are available for an additional $49 a year; fitbit.com
This simple two-inch plastic clip, which can be attached to clothing or slipped into a pocket, uses a 3-D motion sensor and a light-up display (including a digital flower whose stem grows longer as you accumulate activity) to keep you updated on how close you are to reaching a preset daily activity goal, such as how many calories you want to expend. It relays this information to your computer wirelessly, along with data about the timing and intensity of your exercise. The user-friendly website has an excellent food diary that you can update via your smart phone. After wearing the Fitbit for a day or two, I found it as cheesily endearing as a Japanese cyberpet; pretty soon I was walking more and eating more healthfully just to keep the little guy happy. A word of warning, however: The Fitbit is so small and unobtrusive that it’s as easy to lose as your train of thought. My clip lasted only three days before I accidentally flushed it down the toilet.
BUY IT IF You almost never lose anything—and are motivated by knowing how many more steps you need to take today to lose weight tomorrow.