The Skinny on Fitness Trackers

The wristbands that measure energy input, output, and sleep—so you have more control

The rise of technology has been blamed for more sedentary lifestyles and increases in obesity. Fair enough. But tech also offers more ways to track how you're doing—or not doing—along those lines.

David Pogue of the New York Times has weighed in on fitness trackers,  those increasingly popular digital wristbands that can record and analyze everything from calorie expenditures to sleep quality, and download it to your computer. Details about diet can be added manually to create a full picture of energy input and output inside that fascinating (to you, anyway) bio-furnace of yours. 

Pogue talks primarily about the two most prominent bands, the Fitbit Flex and the Up band, which start at about $100.  Both are rubber bracelets with trackers inside. The Fitbit Flex is cheaper and sends data directly to your computer via Bluetooth. The Up band tracks more data, but must be plugged into a phone or computer to transfer the data. 

For both, you still must manually add food intake if you want to track that, too. (Recording what goes in your mouth automatically is still beyond current technology. Pogue says that would be 'witchcraft'.)  But in the end, it’s all about the hard data of how much the body is working, resting and consuming. 

In theory this is a smart idea because exercise and diet are important determinants of fitness, but we tend to lose track of the specifics that matter.  Have we actually been eating more than we burn off? Have we really been getting enough sleep?  It's all right there on the reports, and studies have shown that the more information we have about how we eat and exercise, the better we control it.  At the very least, a baseline of a person’s lifestyle could be very useful data in choosing to add a workout program, making dietary changes or other health decisions.

Of course, this same information can be recorded with a notebook and pencil.  But either way, human memory rarely has perfect recall of events even a few hours past.  That's one human weakness technology can overcome.

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