Fitness trackers only as effective as the goals you set

fitbit photo

Joining a gym won’t automatically make you fit. Neither will strapping on a FitBit unless you have set some clearly defined objectives. In fact, it may lull you into thinking you’re more active when, in fact, you’re not.

That’s the conclusion of researchers at the OHSU School of Medicine in Portland, Oregon.

“To make activity trackers effective, users need to set a specific goal and stick with it,” said the study’s corresponding author, Luke Burchill, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at OHSU in a press release. “When paired with activity goals – such as 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day or 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week – these trackers can be powerful tools for increasing physical activity.”

Burchill recommends meeting with a medical professional such as a primary care physician to establish goals catered to specific health needs.


The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that when people used such monitors without a specific goal in mind, their physical activity declined and their heart health did not improve. This lackluster performance was despite 57 percent of study subjects thinking their activity had actually increased.

The study followed more than 400 healthy adults who were mostly office workers over the course of six months, starting in the summer and ending in the winter. The study participants’ steps were tracked every minute with an activity monitor worn on their wrists.

Like most of today’s activity monitors, the device used in this study had a three-way accelerometer — which measures motion up and down, side to side and front to back — and an optical sensor to count heartbeats.

To evaluate heart health, Burchill and colleagues also assessed participants for multiple indicators of cardiac risk: body mass index, cholesterol, blood pressure and HbA1C, the three-month average of blood sugar.

Participants displayed a decrease in mean steps per day over the course of the study. Their cardiac risk factors also remained largely unchanged. There was an increase in systolic blood pressure, but earlier research has shown blood pressure can increase during the winter months.

About the Author

Truman Lewis
Truman has been a bureau chief and correspondent in D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere, reporting for radio, television, print and news services, for more than 30 years. Most recently, he has reported extensively on health and consumer issues for ConsumerAffairs.com and FairfaxNews.com.