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Fitness wristbands won’t do the work for you

Dale Wasser uses a Fitbit Flex while she works out in her condo’s gym in Toronto.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

This is the third story in a nine-part series on the emerging wave of new-generation technology that monitors our health and wellness.

Going for a walk took a high-tech turn for Dale Wasser last year when she started wearing a wristband that tracks her fitness activity efforts.

Ms. Wasser, co-owner of Impact Insurance Brokers in Toronto, and her husband are in their mid-50s and vigilant exercisers. As a certified fitness specialist, I've been training the couple for 2 1/2 years, and they work out together to motivate each other – both during and after our weekly hour-long exercise sessions.

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Just before Christmas, Ms. Wasser was given a Fitbit Flex – one of hundreds of exercise activity tracking devices on the market – by an employee in her office who had never used it. She began wearing the wristband device nearly 24/7 to see if it would motivate her to keep active when I wasn't around to train her.

"It did at first," she says, but added her use of the device has dwindled since.

Fitness tracking devices come in a range of makes, shapes, colours and sizes. They have various activity tracking and other recording capabilities (some beep, vibrate and/or flash words and numbers to communicate with you). There are also hundreds of mobile apps that can give you feedback, and tell you what to do and how you're faring in and out of a gym. Multinational giants such as Sony and Nike are players in the category.

Ms. Wasser's Fitbit, which retails for about $100 and syncs with her iPhone, and its online tools tell her how many steps she takes, the calories she burns and even how she's sleeping. The general goal is to record 10,000 steps daily, about eight kilometres, a number that originated in Japan in the 1960s, and has been linked to improving heart and other cardiovascular health. The device can also log meals and water intake, as well as calories burned.

"When I first got it and I was close to my 10,000 steps for the day, I would go down to the treadmill [in her condo's gym] just to work toward that 10,000 steps," she says. "It buzzes when you get close, and when you hit 10,000, it buzzes and vibrates on your wrist. I know some of the other [fitness trackers] even buzz you to get moving if you haven't gotten moving."

Just a month into using the Fitbit, however, Ms. Wasser found it was "losing its lustre."

"When I was walking a lot it was fun, but it's really hard to get the 10,000 in during the winter time," she says.

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No magic bullet

By the time a potential fitness client, such as Ms. Wasser and her husband Stephen Hebscher, approach me to help them get in shape, most have already heard the preaching:

– Adults need to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week to gain health benefits, according to the World Health Organization and other bodies.

– Sedentary living is linked to 3.2 million deaths a year and is a leading cause of mortality, the WHO says.

– Lack of exercise can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions and health problems.

– Sitting hours on end can set you up for premature death, although people who are active outside the workplace have less of a risk of dying too young, according to a study published this past January in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study's Toronto researchers say even getting up and moving around a couple of minutes every half hour can cut your chances of an early death.

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But the everyday message I push, and that the average person can more easily relate to, is: Moving regularly just ends up making you feel better – even if it's an effort at first. After two to three weeks of regular walking, time in the gym or swimming, for example, clients also tell me they gain more energy, sleep better and are better able to face the day mentally. And down the road, they see other benefits, including getting back into clothes they haven't worn for years.

In my experience, there's no magic bullet to getting in shape, and no fitness tracking device, equipment, gimmick or fad will do the work for you. Getting and staying active all comes down to you – your efforts and perseverance.

That said, I'm all for anything that keeps exercisers motivated – to relieve boredom, keep their minds as well as bodies working, save them time (possibly the No. 1 cop out for not exercising), or give them an idea of whether all their work is paying off.

And since not everyone can have a personal trainer, that's where downloading a mobile app or getting a device (that can commonly be synced with your smartphone or computer) can help.

Not all, but a lot of it is in the wrist

With the market emphasis on devices that are easy to use – and see on the body – there's a proliferation of wristband tools that work on sensors hidden inside the band. Some measure pulse (thus it's sitting on the key wrist area) and even your sweat levels to gauge how hard you're working. Along with the Fitbit, some of the popular bracelet brands include Jawbone (including its UP3, retailing for about $175), Sony SmartBand (SWR10 at about $100 or SWR30 at about $250) and Nike FuelBand (SE brands in the area of $200).

Other fitness trackers may be worn on other parts of the body.

For instance, the Jawbone UP Move (about $50), a Bluetooth wireless tracker that clips onto clothing, monitors activities as well as sleep patterns, mood, and food and drink intake. It's compatible with iOS and Android, and requires the installation of a free smartphone app to give you constant data uploads and software updates.

The DISQ, a new addition to the North American market, is a mobile device featuring a lightweight belt and ankle straps. It offers both workouts and tracking of cardio and strength training. The DISQ, which sells for about $300 (U.S.), tracks information via an app – based on your height, weight, exercises and their duration, the number of calories burned can be estimated, Robbert Boekema, the former Dutch national speed skater who invented the device, said in an e-mail interview.

But even Mr. Boekema recognizes the limitations of any tech tool.

"Measuring and tracking your results can be useful, but at the end of the day, real results come from the effort you put in yourself," Mr. Boekema says.

"There is no device that will save you or your health – you have to make the efforts," he adds, noting that the DISQ app tracks activity and places it "in the larger context of setting goals, training consistently and earning bonuses for training the right way."

ParticipAction's 'move more, sit less' message

At the downtown Toronto office of ParticipAction, where the "move more, sit less" motto helps encourage healthy active living, Christa Costas-Bradstreet and fellow staff members wear trackers such as a Fitbit or Jawbone to encourage them to get away from their desks. They're also members of social websites, take part in various fitness challenges involving the devices and record their minutes of movement weekly on a bulletin board in the office.

"People have always understood that physical activity is important, but some need help in getting from knowing this to actually doing something, and I think apps and devices have a little bit to do with achieving that, because physical activity can be a social thing as well, and [apps and devices] allow people to join a like-minded community," Ms. Costas-Bradstreet, the non-profit organization's relationship manager, said in an interview at her office. Those communities include virtual chat rooms, message boards and competitions.

However, she says, ParticipAction emphasizes fitness support systems – including in the workplace (encouraging stand-up desks, for instance), at schools (with an emphasis on getting kids regular daily physical activity) and in the community (calling for proper bicycle lanes and racks, and safe walking spaces and ball-playing areas).

Ms. Costas-Bradstreet also reiterated my message – that fitness tech items alone aren't enough to get people off the couch if they aren't inclined to do so.

"They're just one piece of the puzzle," she says.

Ms. Wasser, for one, is thinking of giving her Fitbit Flex to her 80-year-old mother, who was fascinated by the device when her daughter visited her recently at her Florida winter home. And it's simple enough that Ms. Wasser's mom won't be technologically confused – something that may be a problem especially for older users.

"During our walks, my mother would always say, 'How many steps did we walk?'" Ms. Wasser recalls. "She was really into it because she's a walker, and it's fun to help you calculate how far you walked. But it's not going to get the non-walkers to walk – they're going to still be sitting on their butts."

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