Activity Monitors – Worth the Money?

You’ve seen them advertised in magazines, online and at the local sporting goods stores.  Activity monitors like the FitBit, BodyMedia, Jawbone Up and Nike+ Fuelband are just a few of the popular brands that you’ll see on store shelves.  But with price tags reaching into triple digits, are they really worth the money? And how accurate are they?

Researchers Study Activity Monitor Accuracy

A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise evaluated several activity monitors including the popular Fitbit device.  In the small study, researchers compared energy readings of shoe-based monitors to readings from other devices.  They found that in typical life settings, there was some variability in the accuracy of the recordings.  Several other studies have found that while some monitors can be accurate in some settings, they are not necessarily 100% accurate all the time.

From my own experience, I can also confirm that there is a range of accuracy when using the devices. I have evaluated the BodyMedia Fit for several publications and while I liked the device, I found that it did not always accurately record my physical activity.  Walking slowly in high heels, for example, was counted as high intensity activity, whereas my boot camp class where my heart rate was 75 – 90% of my estimated maximum was recorded as light activity.

Should I Invest in an Activity Monitor?

If you read the small print on most activity monitor packages, you’ll see that the devices use different methods to categorize your activity.  This can affect the accuracy of your recording.  For example, some devices are worn on your arm and track motion.  So if you take a spinning class where your arms don’t move, the activity might not get recorded accurately.

So does that mean that you shouldn’t invest in the device?  Not exactly.  Most of these devices provide a good estimate of your total activity throughout the day.  The devices also serve as a reminder to stay active and many of them also record  food intake and other data such as calorie or fat intake and sleep quality.

Cheaper Alternatives to Activity Monitors

For many people, having a constant reminder to stay active is just what they need to improve their health.  But if the price of these trendy devices is outside of your comfort zone, don’t worry.  Activity monitors are not essential if you want to lose weight and become more active.  An old-fashioned pen and paper does the trick, too.  And if you have a smart phone, you can download apps like MyFitnessPal that help you record and track food and activity for free.  Check out this list of apps and websites compiled by North Memorial Diabetes and Nutrition Educator Karen Palmer to find one that works for you.


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