My activity tracked applauded my efforts for politely clapping at an awards ceremony last week.
It was less impressed when I pushed a stroller weighed down with a 3-year-old girl up a dirt path in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It all makes you wonder just how well these fitness trackers work.
I’ve had a watch tracking my every step for about two years. I treat it sort of like my scale at home: When it says something I like, I celebrate it. When it doesn’t, I ignore it and blame it on something out of my control.
I’ve only missed my step goal twice in the last 10 days. One of those days I spent out in the garden with a rototiller, preparing for this year’s planting. I may not have met the agreed-upon number of steps, but I suspect resisting this ground-turning piece of machinery was more of a workout than a long walk my device might acknowledge.
A few days earlier, I wasn’t even wearing it as I turned up the ground. It leads to the existential crisis of exercise: If your activity tracker didn’t count it, did you really exercise? (There’s an eating corollary: Did you really try that hot new restaurant if you didn’t Facebook about it?)
One high school classmate mentioned on Facebook that the workout her tracker appreciates most is folding laundry. Another classmate got chastised for not exercising on a workout day. One of my sisters’ tracker congratulated her on a good swim while she cleaned the house.
In my life, my tracker congratulates me every time I get up from my desk at work to go to the restroom. I’m not sure how sedentary a life you have to live before getting a “Great job!” for that stroll back and forth to the facilities.
The research says these trackers are good but not perfect. A 2015 study found the consumer-level devices’ step counts were fairly accurate compared to research-grade devices. Still, they fell moderately short when it comes to total daily energy expenditure and largely short when measuring moderate to vigorous physical activity.
All this means is these activity trackers are just a tool, and you shouldn’t overly rely on them. If you know you had a good day’s exercise, then good for you. If you know you came up short, work harder tomorrow. If the numbers help you, great, but don’t treat them as gospel.
These devices are still just tools, which apparently can’t tell the difference from sitting on your butt for three hours clapping politely and hiking through the mountains.