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The Truth About Fitness Apps and Devices

These gadgets can be helpful, but it's all up to their users

By Lorie A. Parch | May 27, 2014

The hottest thing in fitness right now isn't a new workout, wacky piece of equipment (à la Shake Weight) or eight-packed trainer-to-the-stars. The news these days is all about technology — from devices like Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand and Jawbone Up to super-popular apps such as RunKeeper, Endomondo and MyFitnessPal.  

These and others claim to transform your workouts, help motivate you and track data (miles walked, calories burned), along with other features, like the ability to easily share your stats for a little friendly competition.

If it seems like there are more fitness devices and apps with every passing week, you're right. The digital fitness market was estimated at an impressive $330 million last year and a February 2014 report forecasts that more than 17 million wearable devices will ship this year alone.

(MORE: 10 Top Wellness Apps to Meet Your Health Goals)

The trouble is, there's almost no evidence — so far — that these gadgets and applications, which can range from a free download to a sleek band costing $100 or more, actually work to keep people physically active over time or that most customers of these products are reaching their fitness goals.

"Scientifically speaking, we know little," says Corneel Vandelanotte, associate professor and director of the Centre for Physical Activity Studies at CQ University in Queensland, Australia.

Too Soon to Tell

That's partly because this technology is new and more research needs to be done. 

Anything that gets anyone moving more isn't a bad thing, of course, and there's little question that exercise-focused devices and apps will continue to improve.

"I believe well-designed apps can definitely make a difference," says Vandelanotte, who's studied the effectiveness of an app to promote walking, called 10000steps.org.au. "Unfortunately, the vast majority of apps are not well-designed and don't include the health behavior change component needed to be effective." He bases his opinion partly on an unpublished review of 800 paid and free health and fitness apps.

Still, thousands are forking over $149 for a Nike+ FuelBand or $100 for a Fitbit Flex, even though there's little reason to believe these products keep customers heading to the gym. 

To make a difference in your health and overall well-being, you need to not just start working out — which a shiny new gadget can definitely make easier and more fun — but you need to keep at it, year in and year out.
 
What Technology Can Do

That said, these devices may be particularly useful for one thing: "The part about gadgets and apps that is good for improving motivation is self-monitoring — tracking steps taken, counting calories," says Jennifer Huberty, associate professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University.

(MORE: Five New Gadgets to Make You Healthier)

The accuracy of numbers you get with the devices may not be completely reliable, she notes, but the point is that you're counting something. “When you're monitoring yourself, you're able to get an understanding of what you're really doing,” Huberty says.

While there's plenty we don't know about how to get people to stick with exercise, one thing we do know is that monitoring yourself is often essential to success, concurs Greg Welk, professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Iowa State University. 

It doesn't matter if you log your steps with an app or jot them on a calendar. Just be sure to track them.

"Self-monitoring is key — it's known to work," says Welk. "People need to learn about their behavior in order to change it."

A 10-Buck Solution

If you're not sure whether a pricey device will make a difference or don't want to download an app, start by getting a run-of-the-mill pedometer, which is easy to find for under $10. 

"I recommend wearing one for a week without any expectations. Find out: What am I truly doing? What's my average step count?" adds Huberty. "Then increase that by 10 percent to 15 percent once you find out what your actual activity is. Ten thousand steps a day can be very intimidating to someone whose average is 2,000 to 3,000 a day."

Don't want to spend a dime? Download a free app, like Moves, to your Android smartphone or iPhone. As long as you have your phone on you, it will automatically track distance, steps, and how long you exercised when you're walking, running or cycling. (iPhone owners can also track calorie burn; just be aware that the app can seriously eat up your phone's battery life.)

Eventually, you probably won't even need a separate device at all.

"Long term, most of this [information] will be captured by cell phones," Welk says.

The bottom line is to find something — app, shiny gadget, or pen and paper, walking your dog — that gets you moving regularly. (A Pew Research Center survey released in early 2013 found that 60 percent of U.S. adults track their weight, diet or exercise, but nearly half of those who track their health did so "in their heads." The ultimate low-tech approach.)  

"Apps and tracking devices are just one more option people have to become more active and live healthy," says Vandelanotte, who thinks the potential for this technology is tremendous. "What method you use doesn't matter, but people are definitely missing out big time if they choose not to be active at all."

Lorie A. Parch is an award-winning veteran health and fitness journalist and the founder of ih8exercise.com, a new site to help people who hate to exercise learn how to do it safely and like it more.