CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Fitness

Buying a fitness tracker to lose weight? Here's why it's not enough

Using a device won't make you healthy.

apply-watch-3-1

A great fitness tracker... not such a great coach.

CNET

I gained weight in the last nine months -- about 12 pounds (5.4 kg). I know this because I've tracked my weight nearly every day on a connected scale since 2013. I can see when I succeed, and when I fail.

I was doing great last June, but while taking a seven-day cruise, I gave up my healthy habits and stopped weighing myself. The bad habits continued after that, and the momentum was lost. By New Year's Eve, the damage had been done.

All of this while wearing an Apple Watch, Fitbit or one of the many other trackers I've been able to test, including some Wear OS watches. Despite having a fitness tracker affixed to my wrist at all times, monitoring my activity and urging me to keep moving, my healthy habits slipped and I wound up several pounds heavier. 

Through it all, I learned that merely wearing a fitness tracker won't make me healthy. And, right now, they're not enough to provide the coaching I need to improve my health or shed the pounds.

02-fitbit-versa-lite-versus-fitbit-inspire

Fitbit's phone app has weight loss and nutritional tracking, but the watches and trackers don't keep enough of a watchful encouraging eye.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What fitness trackers miss

I know from plenty of personal experience that trackers can show daily activity progress, give you heart rate readings and log exercise sessions. Some can log hours of sleep, and others, like the Apple Watch, can even sense atrial fibrillation. But unfortunately, none of them are very good persistent health coaches for my other needs.

I needed help when my weight went off track last year, and my watch wasn't smart enough to notice, or care -- even though it clearly had the data from my smart scale. That scale's app would tell me my weight goals and ping me to keep on track, but when you've clearly fallen off the horse, it's difficult to get back on. 

The fitness trackers and watches never suggested how to eat right, or pinged to try to make commitments to go to the gym. I have high blood pressure for which I take medication, but I never got pinged to take my measurements or my meds. 

Now playing: Watch this: 5 reasons why fitness trackers don't guarantee you'll...
3:45

Apps can do that, but there's no easy on-boarding to help discover how the watches or trackers can keep tabs on that. The most personalized experience I had was with Omron's blood pressure watch, which helped take measurements and provide a few insights, but it isn't a full smartwatch or fitness tracker.

I use a CPAP at night when I sleep, but these trackers cannot show me the relationship between the hours I use it and how energetic I feel the next day. In short, I'm a mess, but the Apple Watch doesn't see that. Neither do most watches. 

To be fair, Fitbit's new in-beta sleep score mode offers some interesting analysis on nightly rest and interruptions, which could end up being useful. For now though, the beta mode shows results only in a web browser.

I reached out to Fitbit and Apple about this story. I haven't heard back from Fitbit, but Apple recommended a number of fitness and coaching apps I could try. I've already dabbled in many of them, and it's true, there's stuff you could use to suit your needs. (A few apps in particular: Lifesum, Lose It, MyFitnessPal, 10% Happier, Calm and Streaks.) Just as I've come and gone from a number of systems, including Weight Watchers, Whole Life Challenge, Atkins and more, I've signed up for and slowly abandoned many of these apps, too.

The problem is that the effort to find and maximize these apps isn't easy for me, someone who's been testing fitness tech for year, let alone an apprehensive newcomer. 

01-omron-heartguide

The Omron HeartGuide successfully measured my blood pressure, and made some health insights, but most wearables are limited in how much guidance they can give.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How they fall short

I've always hoped that a smartwatch could be the Marie Kondo of my future health, eliminating the distractions, focusing on the real goals and clearing my cluttered, easily distracted mind. Instead, every day I get notifications, messages and occasional end-of-day "close the activity ring!" reminders. 

The Apple Watch can tell me if I've been active enough based on its standards, but that information doesn't give me the whole picture. From my daily work commute -- about four and a half miles of walking -- I can easily close the red activity ring on the watch. The green ring, or exercise ring, counts anything above a certain heart rate threshold as exercise and I tend to fill it faster than I expect. Maybe that's because I'm out of shape?

The blue ring, for standing hours, always ends up being filled even when I barely stand. These goals can be adjusted and increased, to add to the challenge, but I'm not usually motivated to do that.  

I see the daily reminders to "close my rings," or take more steps, but if I'm already ignoring them, they're easy to keep ignoring. Also, steps and calorie burn don't guarantee weight loss. The holistic health picture isn't contained on the watch.

The health coach I need

My main health concerns aren't about daily steps, or how often I stand. They're about eating right. Staying on a nutrition plan. Hydrating. Not getting too stressed. Making sure I commit to going to the gym or getting some dedicated, high-intensity cardio. Checking my blood pressure. Hitting my weight-loss goals on a regular basis.

And like I mentioned above, there are plenty of apps to help with that. I use some of them: Withings for blood pressure and weight tracking. Fitbit for hydration and nutrition, and MyFitnessPal or Lose It for calorie counting. Despite all of that data, no one watch or tracker can give me a full picture of my health.

Working out and taking care of your health is hard work, both mentally and physically. Penn Jillette reminded me of that when recounting his 100-plus weight loss journey at CES. Despite their efforts, fitness trackers aren't making that process easier for me. 

The fitness trackers cannot force you to be healthy, and smartwatches aren't designed to replace doctors (in fact, the Apple Watch specifically is designed to dovetail with doctor visits). But if the Apple Watch intends to eventually be a medical tool, trainer and fitness buddy for my life -- and anyone else's -- it could be a lot better at meeting me at my needs faster. 

After all, these apps already have years of my data: my sleep, my steps, my heart rate, my weight. Put it together already. Use machine-learning magic. Tell me the big picture. Do something that slaps me in the face the way my doctor does when she tells me I need to lose weight. Years into wearing more fitness watches than I can count, I'm wondering when it's all going to happen.