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Are Fitness Bands Worth It? Why You Might Be Better Off With Just a Smartphone

The journey to wellness begins with 10,000 steps per day — with a pedometer strapped to your wrist. Put on a slim, rubberized band that keeps track of the number of steps you take each day, and you’ll get a slimmer, fitter, healthier you.

Or so we’d be led to believe by companies such as Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, and Under Armour. That promise has led market-leader Fitbit to sell 30 million devices worldwide since its inception in 2007; altogether, the company says, users have tracked more than 13.2 trillion steps combined using Fitbit devices such as the Surge, Charge, and Flex.

In addition to steps, several of these bands now offer to also track your heart rate, evaluate your sleep, and keep tabs on the calories you consume. All of that data is then sent to an app on your smartphone and from there to the cloud for analysis. Some bands even will even generate exercise programs based on that collected data (though you’ll typically have to pay extra for it).

Recently, however, there have been some questions raised about the accuracy of these devices and the data they collect. Are they really counting all of your steps? How good are they at detecting your heartbeat? In other words, are they worth it or not?

No better than a smartphone

In early 2015, researchers looked at how well fitness bands track our steps. With the exception of one tracker, the study found that most of them do a reasonably good job; however, they also discovered that free smartphone apps work just as well.

“We found that most of these devices were fairly accurate,” says Mitesh Patel, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the study. “What was surprising about that study was that smartphones were actually just as accurate as wearable devices.”

Critics have also questioned the calorie counts these devices provide and whether they’re accurate. A report by NBC’s Today in January warned that some people actually complained of gaining weight when they put too much faith in the calorie counts of their fitness trackers.

How accurate?

Skepticism about fitness bands reached a boiling point in early January when consumers from California, Colorado, and Wisconsin filed a class-action lawsuit against Fitbit.

That suit claims that Fitbit’s Charge HR and Surge trackers consistently underreport users’ heart rates — by an average of 24 beats per minute. Fitbit says it stands behind its PurePulse heart-rate technology, and plans to fight the suit.

In the wake of that class-action filing, Consumer Reports recently retested the Fitbit Charge HR and Surge. The consumer advocacy group found that both devices accurately reported heart rates in their tests.

There’s more to health than steps

Whichever side you believe in that particular debate, it’s clear that the benefits of fitness bands in general are still to be determined.

“There’s not a lot of evidence yet to show that any of these devices are accurate for tracking heart rate, sleep, or other things they claim to track,” says Patel. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re misinforming you, just that independent evidence of their effectiveness is still lacking.

Even if these bands are accurately counting your steps, says Johnny Adamic, who served on former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s Obesity Task Force and writes the Fitness Critic column at The Daily Beast, thinks they may encourage people to focus on the wrong things. “Health is composed of so many different variables,” he points out. "Not just how many steps you take, or whether you toss and turn at night.”

Under Armour’s HealthBox system.

Under Armour, which recently released the $400 HealthBox tracking system, appears to understand that. The company is trying to create a fitness tracking service that goes beyond calories, step counts and heart rates. It recently started working with IBM to put the computing power of Watson to work for personal health.

“We want to start to use big data and cognitive learning specifically to articulate back to you what you should do to feel better,” said Robin Thurston, executive vice president and chief digital officer of Under Armour. “Give you true guidance by using the data you put into the system.”

At least that’s the ultimate goal. Right now, Under Armour’s guidance focuses on how you perform against other users in your age group.

Until fitness bands and their cloud-backed services can give you a better picture of your health, what should anyone looking to get into shape do? If you believe a fitness band will help you, Patel suggests starting with a free fitness tracker app for your smartphone instead. “Those apps can tell you in a matter of minutes what your physical activity is, and that can let you know whether the information from these types of devices is useful and helpful for you.”

In the meantime, rely on your common sense instead of technology. Do something physical every day (rest days from training are a perfect time for a casual hike), cut down on sugar, and pay attention to what you eat. After a few weeks of that, if you feel like your motivation needs a little boost or you want some more specific metrics, then take a look at an app or a band.

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Ian Paul is a freelance technology writer who contributes to Yahoo Tech, PCWorld, and Macworld. In 2016, he will also take up residence as the Windows expert for About.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ianpaul.