Are Health Trackers Actually Making Us Healthier?

Are Health Trackers Actually Making Us Healthier?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska, Pexels


Are Health Trackers Actually Making Us Healthier?

We’re weighing the pros and cons of health metric tracking.

Tracking and quan­tifying our health seems to be all the rage. Did you hit your steps? Close your rings? Meet your macro targets? Stay under your calorie budget?

Wearable electronic health-tracking devices, such as watches, rings and monitors, can record fitness and health-related measures like number of steps taken, VO2 max, heart rate, sleep and calories burned. Studies show that one in five Canadians are wearing one of these gadgets. Beyond wearable devices, there are also countless smartphone apps that are used to track health data, and even smart scales that sync with fitness apps.

So, with all these means of tracking health data, are we healthier as a result?


The research behind health data tracking

Research shows that for some people, tracking can be a positive way to build awareness of lifestyle markers of health, and make sensible behaviour changes such as increasing their physical activity. The data can empower and motivate them, and tracking provides a source of accountability, helping them stick to their goals. However, for others, it’s easy to become preoccupied by the numbers, and it could be a slippery slope to unhealthy fixation.

What may have started as a healthy habit over time can cause many people to become simply obsessed and stressed, resulting in a detrimental effect on mental and emotional well- being. Our choices around exercise, sleep, food and health in general can start to create internal judgment and criticism.

A 2023 systematic literature review found that health and fitness tracking technology was associated with guilt, pressure, stress, anxiety, frustration, rumination over unmet goals, poor body image and a disconnection from the body’s internal signals and real personal objectives. Plus, the constant reminders and notifications can be nerve-racking and annoying. The review also points out that a person's age, gender and personality traits (like perfectionism and how they cope with setbacks, for example), have a lot to do with whether tracking is associated with the negative outcomes they identified.

One thing seems to be certain, though—health tracking is particularly problematic for people who are at higher risk for eating disorders. Studies show that calorie-counting apps and fitness tracking devices can trigger, maintain or exacerbate eating disorder symptoms such as extreme calorie restriction and compulsive exercise.


What makes a person healthy?

The focus on health metrics also overemphasizes the effect of individual behaviour on health outcomes. It creates a belief that adhering to a specific set of habits—like drinking eight glasses of water, getting eight hours of sleep, walking 10,000 steps, and consuming 2,000 calories daily—guarantees good health. But health outcomes are just not that simple.

While it’s certainly valuable to look at these aspects of health, there are many other factors influencing our well-being that are often overlooked, but are just as, if not more, impactful, such as access to healthy food, access to health care, income, education, employment and experiences of discrimination or racism. Yes, eating well and regular physical activity are fantastic for your health, but fixating on meeting arbitrary targets every day will never make up for systemic health inequities. Individual behaviours, while important, exist within a broader context of social determinants that have a profound effect on overall health outcomes.


Are health trackers accurate?

One of the paradoxes of health metric tracking is the inherent inaccuracy of the numbers themselves. For example, a 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis showed that some tracking devices are likely to underestimate heart rate, energy expenditure and steps. On top of that, the targets are often arbitrary and not realistic or appropriate for everyone.

Take for example 10,000 steps, the number most devices set as the daily step target. So many people feel beholden to that daily goal. But why? It’s not based on scientific evidence. This number was chosen because the Japanese character for 10,000 resembles a person walking, so a Japanese company made a pedometer named Manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000 steps metre.” The marketing campaign for this pedometer has somehow led to 10,000 becoming the gold standard for step tracking.

It’s clear that there are health benefits to doing less than 10,000 steps a day—regular walking of any distance is beneficial. Research studies from both Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts suggest that step counts of 7,000 to 7,500 a day may be all it takes to decrease mortality, and the benefits plateau above that number. If we’re looking for targets, there are other potential activity goals. The World Health Organization and the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend adults 18 to 64 years get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every week.

The benefits of physical activity can’t be understated. It’s linked to lower risk of mortality, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, anxiety, depression, dementia, weight gain and high cholesterol. It also helps to support healthier bones, better cognition, quality of life and physical function. Ultimately, what- ever goal you have, physical activity should be personalized and enjoyable to you, not a one-size-fits-all approach.

As we strive to live a healthier lifestyle, it’s important to focus on what’s really motivating us—the why behind our behaviours. True health goes beyond the numbers on a screen.




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Are Health Trackers Actually Making Us Healthier?