Do Step Counters Really Work?

Learn the pros and cons of step counters and other activity monitoring devices, and whether they can improve your performance.


It seems like a new type of fitness tracker or step counter hits the market every day. With all the major tech companies jumping into the fray, we have more choices than ever to monitor our activity. Heck, even most smartphones track steps nowadays.

But the question remains, do they actually help with your workout progress? The jury is still out.

What is a Fitness Tracker?

Most fitness trackers are essentially pedometers. They include an accelerometer, a sensor used by smartphones to switch from portrait to landscape when you change their orientation or position. This sensor is able to detect motion, and in an activity monitor, it's calibrated to detect your walking or running stride.

Most do so pretty well. A recent article on CNET.com tested the accuracy of popular step counters and smartwatches. The Apple Watch was the most accurate, but that doesn't diminish the capabilities of other products. Most devices are quite accurate, and if you wear the same one every day, it doesn't matter much.

Accuracy of Activity Trackers

Image via CNET.com

Some fitness trackers include a heart rate monitor, which measures the pulse in your wrist. We suspect this will become more common in the coming years. Other features depend on the product, ranging from stripped-down pedometers to full-fledged smartphone companions.

The Power of Steps

Counting your steps provides insight into your daily activity. You can see if you sit too much or whether you're particularly active. Step counters also allow you to look at the overall activity level of some workouts and sports.

It's typical*- to set step goals (e.g., 10,000 steps per day). Over the course of a day, you can check in to see if you're on pace and then amp up your activity if you're falling short.

After trying Fitbit's iPhone app this week, I found this feature compelling. My competitive side came out and motivated me to reach my goal, and I was annoyed if I happened to fall short. On Fitbit's app, you can set up challenges with friends or family, thereby adding another level of competition to increase your daily steps. Let's be honest—no one wants to lose. I've heard stories of folks running around their house before bed just to get in a few extra steps—this might impair sleep, but that's another story,

However, after experimenting with this app I found some limitations.

Step Counters Works for Walkers or Runners

If you walk or run, fitness trackers are great. You can measure exactly how many steps you took, and compare the distance you cover each day. However, if you strength train in a gym, the pedometer doesn't do you much good.

Let's say you're doing Push-Ups with a fitness tracker on your wrist. Your wrist doesn't move during the exercise, so the tracker cannot detect activity. Ditto  with a Squat and most other strength exercises. Some fitness trackers (like Fitbit) have the option to add a specific workout, but that can be tedious. It's a tracking device, so ideally it should track all activity.

It Doesn't Increase Performance

Fitness trackers are designed to get people moving. They are great for folks who are sedentary or looking to lose weight. If you work in an office or sit in class all day, you'll be surprised at how little you move. So wearing a step counter is a great way to remind yourself to stand up and get moving.

For weight loss, this might work for some people. If you move more, you'll burn more calories and you may shed some pounds.

However, this is exercise at the most basic level. Step trackers don't know what type of exercise you're doing or your level of intensity. You could be doing a Tabata workout with eight sets of 20-second sprints with 10 seconds of rest between sets (this is very difficult), yet someone who jogs at a moderate pace might take more steps in eight minutes because they don't rest. Rest assured, the individual doing the Tabata workout will experience better results.

To improve your performance and burn fat fast, you need to commit to a training program. Just because someone takes thousands of steps per day does not guarantee they will get fit. To truly make improvements, you need to challenge your body.

A fitness tracker that includes a heart rate monitor provides some insight into how hard you're working based on your heart rate and stride. However, it cannot substitute for a workout program. It's simply another tool in your toolbox.

The Calorie Measurements are Suspect

Nearly all fitness trackers provide info on the number of calories you burn. This is powerful, because you can count the calories you consume and compare the total to the number of calories you burn. If you burn more than you eat, you will lose weight.

However, this has limitations. The only sure way to determine how many calories you burn during physical activity is to be hooked up to a machine that measures your oxygen consumption. Such machines continue to improve their calorie calculation algorithms, but they're far from perfect.

For example, I know for a fact (confirmed by lab testing) that I burn a minimum of 2,400 calories per day just to function. That's the amount of energy my body would use if I were to lie in bed all day just breathing. However, the Fitbit app said I burned only 2,400 to 3,000 over the course of a day, which is very low.

Individual experiences vary with calories, and accuracy in counting calories isn't as important as accuracy in counting steps. You can still use those numbers to determine days when you're more physically active than others. Just remember, it's not an exact science.

OK, Should I Wear an Activity Monitor?

If you're an athlete playing team sports, there's no need to wear one. The data these devices currently provide don't offer enough information to increase your performance. If you have a device with a heart rate monitor, you can use that data to measure the intensity of your workouts.

If you're looking to get fit, you might want to consider wearing one. They provide basic info on your activity, which can be motivating to get you to move more often. Overall, if you think a fitness tracker might help you reach your goals, go for it. You need to find what works for you.

We are excited about the future of these devices. As more sensors are packed into them, they will provide more valuable data. For example, in the near future, ee might be able to measure oxygen consumption or blood glucose levels, which will revolutionize how we monitor our training, nutrition and overall health.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: WORKOUTS | FITNESS | CALORIES | EXERCISE | TRACK | HEART | HEART RATE | FITNESS TRACKER