“My armband’s making me fat.”
Excuse me, what? How could wearing a fitness-tracking device make you fat?
That’s exactly what some people are claiming. That the armband fitness tracker they wear religiously to count their steps, moves, exercise, and heart rate is actually making them fat instead of the intended goal of improving fitness or aiding in weight loss.
The idea kind of blew my mind when I first read the headline. I like to try to predict what a story is going to be about when I read the title or hear the teaser on the news. For this one, it was a stretch to come up with an answer. All I could think was that maybe people were reaching their step goals and then deciding they were done moving for the day. But even that seemed a little ridiculous to me; just up your goals!
Turns out, most of the user complaints have more to do with the suggested calories of the devices rather than the actual tracking of steps or calories burned. One user followed the advice of her fitness tracking software completely. She ate exactly the number of calories it told her to. The problem was, those devices don’t factor in body-type or food quality, which can make a bigger difference than you think. Three-thousand calories of Cheetos is going to give you a drastically different outcome than 3,000 calories of zucchini and carrots. (And no, I’m not suggesting you eat 3,000 calories of carrots. That makes my stomach ache just thinking about it.)
The thing is, we all just want weight loss to be simple. Heck, we just want everything to be simple. But not everything can be, especially when it comes to weight loss. So many things beyond steps and calories factor into the complicated equation that is weight loss: type of food, timing of food, body type, disease, genetics, lifestyle, weight history, and more. Two women of the exact same weight could eat the exact same number of calories and take the exact same number of steps and have two very different outcomes.
It’s not fair to put the blame on the fitness tracker, but it’s not as ostentatious as I would have thought when I first heard the story teaser. We’re talking a piece of technology that’s so incredible that it can count your steps, estimate your daily calorie burn, and even analyze your sleep — all through a tiny chip on your arm. It’s absurd to expect it to be exactly right in every piece of the weight loss equation. It’s not a person. It can’t factor in extenuating circumstances, it can’t adapt to your lifestyle or personality, and it can’t perform magic tricks. It’s only fair to use these tools as exactly what they’re meant to be: tools. A piece of the puzzle, not the magic answer to everything.
How to Use a Fitness Tracker Without Gaining Weight
1. Set fitness goals, not calorie goals
Fitness trackers are great because they bring awareness to your daily activity (or lack thereof). They motivate you to get up and moving when you glance at your wrist midway through the day and you realize you’re not even a quarter of a way through your daily step goal. Use that to your advantage. Have you started consistently hitting your goal? Bump it up a notch. Or add to it. Make more of that activity fall into the “vigorous” category instead of just steps, for example. Don’t rely solely on your fitness tracker to tell you the exact number of calories you’ve burned so you can turn around and eat the corresponding number. There are too many variations and fluctuations in the estimate.
2. Don’t skip the sleep tracking part
Sleep is totally overlooked as an essential component of good health and weight. Not getting enough sleep (or getting too much – although I challenge any parent to say they get too much) can cause your hormones to fluctuate or become out of whack. That in turn can affect your weight, your energy levels, and your eating habits. Use the sleep aspect of the fitness tracker to try to achieve a consistent bedtime, a consistent wake-up time, and a sufficient number of restful hours.
3. Be honest
My husband used my fitness tracker for about a week before he got really pissed off with it. He was adamant that he’d taken more steps than he had, so he started drumming his wrist against his thigh to make the step count go up. Then he jokingly said he’d strap it to our toddler and he’d hit his steps in no time. The thing is, maybe it was missing a few steps here and there, but the reality is that he was sitting at a desk most of the day. Be honest with your device and yourself if you want to see results.
4. Keep a food journal
One of the best ways to change your eating habits for good (as opposed to crash dieting) is to keep a food journal. Writing down everything you eat brings awareness to what you’re putting in your mouth, how much, and how often. By learning what your habits truly you are, you can start to change them for the better. It doesn’t matter so much the calorie content of each morsel of food (or even your daily intake), but the types of foods and when and how you’re eating them. This is especially helpful when you’re also increasing your exercise; it can be very tempting to eat more thinking you’ve “earned it.”