Are fitness trackers worth the trouble?

In this age of fitness trackers and smartwatches, it has become fashionable and tempting to log every step we take and keep track of how many calories we burn, but is this really the best way to reach our goals, and how accurate are these high-tech gizmos anyway?

Today it has become easier than ever to log, track, and calculate pretty much every aspect of our fitness life from the food that we eat, to the miles we run, to the calories we burn— but is this something that is essential to do or is this just another shiny distraction that can keep us from achieving our goals?

Over the years I’ve become a bit of a control freak when it comes to tracking and logging things that have to do with my workouts and diet. 

Are smartwatches worth the trouble?

Part of the reason is that I’ve tried the more intuitive “eat better and exercise more” idea with little success. So I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a little zealous with tracking this kind of stuff. Just ask my wife, who tries really hard not to roll her eyes every time I pull out my little food scale or log my meals in my food tracking app.

Now thanks to activity trackers such as the Fitbit and Apple Watch, we can now log every step we take and instantly see how many calories we burn whether we are running a marathon or merely fetching our trashcans from the end of the driveway.

Like any of our other high-tech toys, however, just because we are able to track all of our movements, does that mean we should?

How accurate are these devices anyway, and is this information actually useful to reaching our fitness goals, or is this just another example of us focusing on the wrong things and getting bogged down in the trivial details?

Even though these devices may never be 100% accurate when it comes to calculating the number of calories burned, they have come a long way over the last several years. Even the cheapest fitness trackers today are light years ahead of your mom’s old pedometer that made that weird clicky sound every time she took a step.

Overall, I think we can say that these new smartwatch fitness trackers are reasonably accurate and when used as intended will give you a pretty good estimate of the number of calories you have burned during your workout.

At least when it comes to your cardio workout.

In my experience, these fitness trackers are far less useful when it comes to an activity like weight training.

Yes, they can measure your heart rate, but when it comes to lifting weights, I don’t really care if my heart rate is in the fat burning zone or not. I’m far more concerned about whether or not I’m going to be able to lift that heavy barbell above my head one more time before my muscles give out.

Keeping your eye on the prize.

The other important thing to keep in mind is whether or not any of this really matters?

Putting aside the accuracy of these devices for a moment. You always want to look at the bigger picture and think about why you are doing any of this in the first place. In other words, is what you are doing taking you any closer to your ultimate goal?

When it comes to fitness trackers, I think the answer is…. maybe

Like any other tool, it’s the way that you use it that matters.

If its beeping nagging reminders, make you get your butt off the chair, walk up a few flights of stairs, or go for a run, then it’s probably a good thing. At the same time, if tracking your workouts and calories burned gives you the justification to do things that won’t help you with your long-term goals (like eating that pint of ice cream in the freezer), then you might be better off without it.

Run more = eat more

One of the downfalls of tracking the calorie burn of your workouts (and cardio workouts in general) is that it can make you feel like you can eat more than you normally would otherwise.

Do you eat more when you exercise?

How many times have you gone to the gym and then “rewarded” yourself with an after-workout smoothie or a trip to Chipotle on the way home?

I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I think about when I look at my workout log and it says that I burned a few hundred calories, is trying to decide what flavor of ice cream I’ll be ordering that night.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing these calories as “bonus” calories that we can then somehow make up for later so that things even out.

So although I track my cardio workouts, I’ve also set it up so these calories are not deducted from my daily calorie goal in my food tracking app.

Now having said that, does this mean that you should be tracking the number calories burned in your weight lifting sessions as well?

One of the questions that people ask me all the time is “How many calories does weight lifting actually burn?”

It has been estimated that your typical weight lifting session can burn anywhere from 75-300+ calories depending on the level of effort, length of rest periods, amount of weight lifted, and the number of times you lifted it. These are also things that are difficult if not impossible, to measure with something that is essentially a fancy heart rate monitor. 

Even though weight lifting may not burn a ton of calories, it is something — but does that mean that we should be tracking it?

Personally, I don’t track my weightlifting sessions for a few different reasons.

First of all, I try to mentally (and physically separate) my weight lifting workouts from my cardio workouts. Not only because they work two different energy systems and they have the potential to interfere with one another, but they also serve two different goals.

Are fitness trackers worth the effort?

Generally speaking, I do cardio in order to work my cardiovascular system and burn some calories, which primarily uses the body’s aerobic energy system. On the other hand, my weight lifting sessions are geared more toward building strength and muscle, which utilizes mostly the body’s anaerobic energy system.

Because I don’t really use weightlifting as a way to burn calories, I don’t bother tracking it on my smartwatch or figure it into my daily calorie equation.

Now having said that, this doesn’t mean that I don’t track of my weight lifting workouts, I do. In fact, I think it’s important to keep some type of workout log and track exactly what exercises you are doing, how much weight you are lifting, and how many times you are lifting it. However, the focus here is about building strength and muscle and has nothing to do with how many calories it may happen to burn along the way.

The bottom line…

Overall, I think using a fitness tracker or smartwatch can be an excellent motivational tool to get you moving and keeping track of your progress, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the right tool for every type of workout.  Always keep the goals of your workout in mind and don’t get caught up in the meaningless details.

Finally, remember that tracking your workouts and the number of calories you burn is a way to help you achieve your long term goals and not just an excuse to pick up that extra-large smoothie on your way home from the gym.

References:

Lytle JR, Kravits DM, Martin SE, Green JS, Crouse SF, Lambert BS. Predicting Energy Expenditure of an Acute Resistance Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Feb 13

Phillips WT, Ziuraitis JR. Energy cost of single-set resistance training in older adults. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Aug;18(3):606-9.

Nuckols, Greg How many calories do you burn lifting weights? Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS) April 2019

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