How Accurate Are Activity Trackers, Really?

Maybe you just got a new fitness tracker for Christmas, and are planning to use it for sticking to your New Year's resolutions. These types of tech are great for a lot of things like monitoring your steps, but are activity trackers accurate? Though they make big claims and promise to improve your life with cutting-edge health technology, new research suggests that activity trackers are not quite a marvel of "quantified self" technology just yet when it comes to measuring things other than steps.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity and led by epidemiologist Dr. Kelly Evenson of UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health investigated the accuracy of activity trackers. This involved reviewing more than 20 published articles on various aspects of activity tracker performance. The results for these devices were kind of middling:

Overall, the systematic review indicated higher validity of step counting, inconclusive findings (based on few studies) for distance and physical activity, and lower validity for calories (energy expenditure) and sleep.

In other words, activity trackers are good at keeping tabs of your number of steps, may or may not be good at rating how far you've traveled, and aren't so good at analyzing sleep or calorie usage.

It could be fun to use the sleep tracking and other features on your activity tracker, but you just can't count on them alone (yet, anyways — the technologies have plenty of time to improve). That information could sort of be worse than nothing if it leads you astray in your health habits. If that darn activity tracker tells you your sleep quality is poor even though you feel basically fine, it could become a stressful self-fulfilling prophecy.

Feel free to continue using your activity counter to confidently count your steps, of course. But simple pedometers have been available for ages, and they're a fraction of the price of their newer-age counterparts to boot. It may make sense to stick to one of those (or maybe a pedometer app for your phone), and pocket the difference for paying the rising cost of health insurance.

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