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Why fitness wearables won’t make me beautiful

Commentary: Thinking about buying a wearable to kickstart a new exercise regime? Hope you like running.

Editors' note:  Welcome to Boom With a View, a new column by Daniel Van Boom (yes, that's a real name), CNET Australia's Asia news editor. He'll be doing what he grew up doing: talking about nerdom, and pretty much everything else, to strangers on the internet. 

"I gave up after a month," my friend says of his new fitness exploits. "I bought a Fitbit and everything."

That doesn't surprise me. After all, buying a fitness wearable is like paying for a gym membership: it might be helpful one day, but for most people, today is not that day.

Sure, plenty of people are jumping on the bandwagon, with just over 100 million wearables sold last year, according to IDC Research. But not this guy. After owning a few, I've decided they're not going to help me. 


Don't get me wrong. I'm a nerd's nerd, keen as ever to try any gadget (including a selfie stick), and I'm not against wearables as devices. CNET reviewer Scott Stein hesitates to call fitness trackers must-haves, but points to the Fitbit Charge 2 for those who want everyday tracking, plus sleep and heart rate monitoring. These devices can help you slim down.

And this is where I have to add a big fat asterisk: You have to like running, since running is the activity most smartbands and watches can track most reliably. And running slows time to a crawl, hurts your knees and makes you sweaty. Running is a trifecta from hell.

OK, it's not just running. Waterproof wearables like the Fitbit Flex 2 can also track swimming, and most new devices can tell if you're cycling or tormenting yourself on an elliptical machine. But all these exercises, to me, are variations of running. Long cardio sessions will henceforth be snidely referred to as "running."

I'm lucky. I actually enjoy lifting weights, and between that, Brazilian jiu jitsu and astonishingly poor self-control (I once ate nine courses on a night out, just ask my co-workers), I usually get six or seven workouts in each week. I enjoy all this. People think they don't like exercise, but it's more likely they don't like exercise they hate.

Today's fitness wearables encourage you to walk 10,000 steps a day or try to run farther than your friends. That's great for those who care about step count. But they do little to shepherd the rest of us to alternative forms of exercise -- like rock climbing, sports, martial arts or yoga -- that we'll actually enjoy. Note: I did try tracking my heart rate in my third yoga class, but my Samsung Gear S3 announced loudly midsession that it had lost its internet connection. It's fine; I didn't want to find my zen anyway.




I also question how much fitness wearables help you lose fat, which is usually the reason people exercise, anyway.

Let me hit you with some bro science. The most important part of fat loss is eating fewer calories than your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is your base metabolic rate (BMR) plus the energy you spend on working out and just being a functional human.

For instance, my TDEE falls somewhere around 3,400 calories, so for me to lose fat, I need to eat no more than 2,900 calories a day. For those counting, that's about 270 peanut M&Ms. (Do not use up your daily calorie allotment on peanut M&Ms. Trust me.)

Fitness trackers help with this -- or try to at least. My Samsung Gear S3, for instance, updates every half hour or so to tell me how many daily calories I've burned. Except it doesn't do so by measuring my heart rate. Each brand of tracker has a downloadable app, where you enter your age (24), height (6'2"), weight (210 pounds, or 0.80 Rocks) and activity level (high, if you count getting beat up by teens at jiu jitsu as "activity"). This, plus adding the calories burned while running, is how wearables estimate your daily calorie expenditure. 

Plenty of online calculators do the exact same thing.

Why is this a problem for fitness wearables? They can only track the calories you burn while exercising, but have a harder time tracking anything once you've stopped moving. Again, this is perfect for running, cycling and other forms of steady-state cardio. If you go for a 30-minute run, you'll burn about 300 calories -- but not much will happen after that.

Compare that with weightlifting: Studies show your metabolism will stay raised for up to 38 hours after your workout. The same happens with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), like sprints or, say, Brazilian jiu jitsu. And both weights and HIIT boost fat-burning hormones and are often credited as being better ways to lose fat than running.

And so far, you can't track any of that properly with a wearable.


See how FUN exercise can be?

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

The future, however, looks bright. And svelte.

Apple's WatchOS 4, announced at WWDC in June and coming this fall, looks to fix at least some of these problems. For starters, Apple says it'll recognize high-intensity interval training exercises. Plus, the new GymKit app will pair with new gym machines, meaning your watch will get details on your reps and weight.

Both of these sound exciting to people like me who view running as Satan's exercise. But I question how many benefits of HIIT will be measured, and how long it will be before these smart machines hit actual gyms (though Apple says 90 percent of equipment manufacturers make compatible machines).

One day, fitness wearables will finally help me in my ongoing quest to be beautiful. In the meantime, I'd have to run. And no promise of health or beauty in this world can convince me to do that.  

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