Fitbit Charge

Need a Fitness Tracker?

The announcement of the Apple Watch this week is one more example of how options for tracking your own physical activity are exploding. Also growing is the amount of money you can spend on a fitness tracker. And it seems that your employer’s interest in tracking you is growing, too.

Apple’s Watch is pegged to be the next big thing. With a price tag that starts at $349 and ranges up to $17,000 for prestige models, Apple aims to make it’s watch an indispensable companion. At the Apple Watch rollout event, supermodel (and presumed health expert) Christy Turlington Burns declared, “In the short time I’ve been using it, I can already see how this is going to be an important part of my life.”

Who needs Facebook friends when you have a $17,000 watch/gizmo that cares about you?

The range of money you can spend on tracking yourself is remarkable. Back down on earth some people are using pedometers that cost as little as a dollar. The American College of Sports Medicine says you can get a good one for $10-50. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania reported in JAMA recently that free software on the smartphone you already own will do a fine job of tracking your activity without spending another penny. You just have to keep it with you all the time.

Gamesters of TriskelionThe employer wellness industry is counting on activity tracking to help it grow from an $8 billion industry in 2015 to $12 billion by 2020. Cleveland Clinic has been particularly aggressive, putting Pebble FitLinxx trackers on all of its employees. This is the same employer whose CEO, Toby Cosgrove, said in 2009 that he would stop hiring people with obesity altogether, if only it were legal. He later apologized.

In an iconic episode of Star Trek, Kirk and his crew were fitted with electronic collars to encourage their participation in games for the amusement of disembodied aliens. Surely employers aren’t headed down a parallel path. But recent moves to seek exemption from EEOC action for discriminatory or coercive penalties in wellness programs are not reassuring.

Tracking your own activity can indeed be helpful. Less helpful are coercion, threats, and penalties from someone else, like an employer. The key ingredient here is engagement and intrinsic motivation. In the right context, activity trackers can foster such engagement and motivation.

Use them for personal health and empowerment.

Click here to read more about using smartphone apps for fitness tracking and here to read the research letter in JAMA. Click here to read more about the Apple Watch, and here to read about the growing use of trackers in employer wellness programs.

Fitbit Charge, photograph by Fitbit via Pinterest

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.