You know the saying “knowledge is power," but it turns out that knowledge can also lead to fitness. That’s the idea behind the surge in workout apps and wearables that promise to help people stay fit by sharing real-time data about their activity levels, calories, heart rate—pretty much anything.
According to a February 2016 report from information technology research firm Gartner, Inc. 232 million wearable devices—watches, chest straps, and wristbands—were purchased worldwide in 2015. That number is expected to jump to about 275 million by the end of 2016.
A similar surge is happening with workout apps for smartphones. The apps can track activities like how many steps you’ve taken, your running route, or how many calories you just ate.
Even though more people are using technology to track their health, here’s the real question: What have been the results?
“I think wearable technology and workout apps are an excellent motivator to get active and stay fit,”says Arsh S. Dhanota, MD, CAQSM, a sports medicine physician at Penn Medicine. “They are making people more conscious about putting in the effort to stay healthy.”
Research supports Dr. Dhanota’s observation: These fitness gadgets and apps are great for motivating and educating people. To be effective, they should be incorporated within your overall plan for health and wellness.
Here are four key ways fitness technology can be used to help you get a step closer to your fitness goals.
1. Keeping It Steady
Runners gearing up for the spring race season know endurance is a key part of crossing the finish line. Dr. Dhanota says fitness technology can help you keep a steady pace.
“I have a good friend who is training for a half marathon. He wants to run a certain pace,” he explains. “A device can monitor his pace during a run and tell him exactly how close he is to his goal.”
So, for example, if you want to run a steady 8-minute mile, your training could include an app or wearable that lets you know at what points on the course you tend to slow down and whether or not you should slow down or speed up during your run in order to reach your goal.
2. Tracking Progress
If your fitness goal is to challenge yourself to meet new goals —whether that means increasing your distance by a mile or improving your mile speed by 30 seconds—Dr. Dhanota says fitness technology can help you monitor your progress week-by-week.
If you notice a decrease in performance, you can use the data available through your app or wearable to pinpoint the cause by thinking about what may have happened around the time you notice your progress start to peter off. This could also be key information to share with your physician.
Perhaps you can speak with your physician to discuss any injury or health issue that's preventing you from improving your performance,” he says. If you can show your physician how your progress has changed, that data can help him or her help you in the future.
The good news is many of the wearables are about 80 to 99 percent accurate, according to an October 2015 review of 17 popular wearables, published in the journal Healthcare Informatics Research.
3. Boosting Motivation
Staying motivated can be tough sometimes. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to use apps and wearables to help boost your drive to get out there.
Setting small achievable goals is one of the most effective means of keeping yourself motivated to be active and stay fit. Because apps and wearables can accurately track a variety of important fitness metrics like number of steps walked, miles ran, or calories burned, they are excellent tools to assist in goal setting.
Many wearables and apps are connected to social media as well, providing an opportunity to connect with friends and family who are also working towards their fitness goals. Seeing others post their progress as well as the gratification of sharing your own fitness achievement can keep you motivated not to skip that next workout and also to push a bit harder during it.
4. Telling it Like It Is
It’s one thing to think you're healthy, but it’s quite a reality check to see that maybe you don’t get as much physical activity, or sleep, or water as you thought. Wearable devices and fitness apps can be like little coaches.
That was Dr. Dhanota’s goal when he purchased fitness devices for his parents. Their wearables tell them how much time they’ve spent sitting, how many calories they’ve eaten, and how many steps they’ve taken. And as with many fitness gadget users, it’s become a friendly competition. “They ask each other, ‘How many steps did you take today?’” Dr. Dhanota says. “Knowing the reality of your activity level is a great way to self-motivate."