Can smartwatches really help achieve fitness goals?

Many factors influence the accuracy of a wearable, says the writer. FILE PHOTO: MONICA DAVEY/EPA

Many factors influence the accuracy of a wearable, says the writer. FILE PHOTO: MONICA DAVEY/EPA

Published Jun 11, 2023


As common as it has become to own a smartphone, the age of wearables is fully upon us, with an estimated 1.1 billion in use around the world.

According to Statista, between 2019 and 2022, the number of connected wearable devices worldwide increased significantly, with about 1.1 billion devices in use - up from 929 million recorded in the year prior.

The wearable-devices market has experienced a substantial surge in sales, driven by the increasing availability of smartwatches and health trackers.

Many consumers are adopting these devices due to their convenience and ability to help them manage daily life while offering smartphone notifications from the wrist, fitness tracking while at the gym - or even just the illusion of being healthy after hammering down 10,000 steps a day.

But just how good are smartwatches and the so-called "fitness trackers" at doing what they advertise, and how accurate are they against medical equipment?

In short, no. In fact, most manufacturers state this in the fine print of the product's packaging. However, not all hope is lost for wearable technology.

Wearable devices have significantly improved accuracy at measuring vital signs like heart rate. While not to be trusted above an ECG monitor at a hospital, the notion of just having a machine to collect data on one's heart rate 24 hours a day could potentially provide life-saving feedback.

Food for thought: Most people who have yet to wear a smartwatch with a heart rate monitor haven't had their heart monitored for an extended period. Consistent heart rate monitoring can detect an irregular rhythm - the early detection of which could potentially prevent many life-threatening diseases.

Despite the pros of wearing a smartwatch, it is important to remember that many factors influence the accuracy of a wearable. Depending on brand, cost and functionality, accuracy can differ broadly, but in general, range around 10bpm above, or below, the accuracy of medical-grade equipment - which isn't too much of a variance.

In terms of step tracking while walking, running or jogging, most devices make use of a pedometer - the earliest of technologies to be engineered into wearable devices, so much so that the first fitness bands introduced to the market consisted of only a vibration for notifications and a pedometer to track steps.

Pedometers, which are also built into the majority of smartphones today, have improved significantly. In general, every day step monitoring, most devices (even cheaper ones) are perfect. For exercise tracking, more premium devices are likely to perform better and with greater accuracy. The added benefit of being able to track step count is for motivation as well.

Seeing how many steps have been done for the day so far can only encourage the wearer to achieve the daily goal - motivation and encouragement become so important, especially when going to the gym and working out doesn't seem that appealing. However, the only factor to consider is that in wearables, pedometers are very sensitive and even gentle shaking of the wrist contributes toward step counts.

However, one of the most admirable features of a smartwatch is its daring attempts at offering to track various exercises - in some of the sporting codes not even recognised by the International Olympic Committee.

For this, smartwatches deserve a round of applause because while they may fail dismally in offering a glimpse into how Judo class went, they're the only bit of technology around trying its best to do so.

In conclusion, while it will still try to do it, a smartwatch won't offer a great digital representation of your last kayaking venture. However, with a solid GPS tracker built-in, it will provide great insight into your previous jog with accuracy down to the centimetre.

All-day heart rate monitoring can always be a good thing, and having a better understanding of your heart's condition can allow you to achieve your fitness goals better.

* Kyle Venktess is a freelance content producer for IOL Tech.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.

IOL Tech

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