Tracking information on your fitness journey has never been easier thanks to a variety of emerging wearable devices and smartphone apps.

The wide array of technological tools available supports fitness by helping you track things like how many steps you’ve taken, plan routes for running, walking, or biking, and celebrate victories like losing a specific number of pounds or working out a certain number of days.

The good news is that both smartphone apps and wearable devices are reliable at tracking activity. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania tested ten top-selling apps and found they tracked participants’ steps on a treadmill with equal accuracy to wearable devices.

Accuracy is a needed for a device or app to effectively change behavior, and researchers wanted to investigate recent doubts, especially since apps are so much more accessible than wearable devices.

What apps and wearable devices are available to track fitness goals?

You’re probably familiar with apps, the smartphone programs available for download on your phone. Many are free or low-cost, and perform a variety of functions from tracking the number of steps you take to tailoring workouts to your fitness level. Here’s an amazing list from Pain Doctor with ten apps that can transform your physical health.

Wearable technology, on the other hand, involves small computers frequently worn in bracelets or watches, but also sometimes contained in other items, like special clothing.

Wearables track everything from heartbeat and respiration rate to the amount of sleep you’re getting each night.

Most devices have a masculine, computer-like appearance, but those who gravitate toward bling might like Swarovski’s activity tracker collection, a series of crystal-embellished bracelets and necklaces helping you track movement and sleep in style. The tracker itself is embedded in a massive crystal. Like most wearable devices, the trackers send information wirelessly to your cellphone to effortlessly keep you up-to-date.

Here’s a list from Pain Doctor of three wearables that are wonderful for chronic pain patients.

How can apps and wearables improve my fitness level?

The key element that makes apps and wearables transformative is their integration in your life. Many people have their smartphones within arm’s reach at all times. When you use apps to set up proper reminders, they can trigger healthy behaviors like telling you to exercise, drink water, or even meditate.

Many people live increasingly sedentary lives. Imagine having an app that reminded you to get up every hour and move around or do 20 jumping jacks.

A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that people who use apps are more likely to exercise. One important way of achieving that goal is by helping people overcome psychological barriers to exercise. Frequently the biggest barrier is the feeling of, “I don’t feel like exercising right now.” Another common barrier is a lack of clarity, not knowing how to work out or which exercises to do.

The researchers found that when study subjects reviewed their fitness data, it motivated them to exercise more. The effect was most strong for people who already want to exercise, but just need a little motivation, however this approach can help anyone increase their levels of fitness, they said.

Apps can help by allowing you to schedule specific workouts and routes. Then, all you have to do is follow the directions. This reduces the chances that you’ll deviate from the plan, and the data is always there to cheer you on or offer quiet reproach.

If finding a local fitness class at a time and place that works for you is a common obstacle, there’s an app for that, too. MINDBODY allows you to search fitness classes and more in your area and book them directly on the app, saving you time and reducing those critical barriers to fitness.

If you’d like to start practicing yoga, but aren’t sure how, you’ll find apps making the practice more accessible. YogaStudio app offers pose tutorials and full-length practices. People wanting a more customized fitness experience might enjoy FitMo, which puts a personal trainer in your pocket.

Can apps or wearables hurt your fitness progress?

Nothing is all roses, and smartphone apps and wearable devices have their downsides, too.

One possible drawback comes down to too much of a good thing. The ease of tracking fitness data with technology allows people to skip self-tracking, which some researchers say is an important part of modifying behavior, reports Shape magazine. This is especially true for people working to increase fitness levels, and who are not already fit.

Essentially, the people who need tracking the most might be doing a disservice to themselves by asking their cell phone to track everything for them.

Some doctors also worry that wearable devices could pose health risks, according to Fox News. Placing devices like glasses, watches, and other gadgets with wireless connections directly on the skin could increase exposure to potentially harmful radio waves. People already encounter an onslaught of these waves every day from the smartphones and other devices they use.

Most of these devices operate with Bluetooth technology, which uses a lower frequency of wave than smartphones or other wireless devices. However, not all devices use Bluetooth, potentially adding to already high levels of wireless wave exposure, Fox News reports.

Devices are required to undergo testing for a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), but critics say the criteria are outdated and not ideal for measuring low-intensity exposure that accumulates over time. Instead, SAR is best used to indicate risk for high-intensity, short-term exposure. University of California, Berkeley professor Joel M. Moskowitz tells Fox News:

“Many in the medical community are oblivious to the potential health risk of microwave radiation.”

One way to reduce this radiation is by opting to use fitness apps instead of wearable devices. They’re equal in reliability, and if your phone is always by your side anyway, you’re not increasing radiation exposure.

Another potential concern is the level of distraction. People staring at their cellphones or tracking watches could be at increased risk for accidents. However, that risk is easily reduced by making sure you pay attention to the road (or sidewalk) in front of you.

What is your experience with using apps or wearable devices to improve fitness?

Image by Karl Varon via Flickr

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