Fitness trackers: Help or hype?

Fitness trackers have been touted as the next big thing after smartphones.

Unlike smartphone apps that use GPS to track movement, fitness trackers use an accelerometer to measure motion, compute calories burned and monitor sleep patterns.

Often in the form of wristbands, the latest models even have heart-rate sensors and altimeters.

Such gadgets use Bluetooth or wired options to sync with users' smartphones or computers, to upload and display data with apps on smartphones or on websites. This lets even the most obsessive users track their daily fitness goals.

Sales of sports, fitness and activity monitors are set to hit US$2.8 billion (S$3.5 billion) in 2019, up from US$1.9 billion last year, according to IHS, a US-based market intelligence firm. It sees revenues from these devices rising 22 per cent to US$2.2 billion this year.

Sony, Samsung and LG are among the electronics giants that have leapt onto the bandwagon. Razer, better known for its gaming peripherals, will soon be launching Nabu, which can display notifications as well. And last week, Xiaomi announced its own fitness tracker, Mi Band, that costs a mere 79RMB (S$16).

FACING SOME ROAD BUMPS

Despite encouraging signs, things are not all rosy for the business. Nike is said to have laid off most of its FuelBand staff. Gadget company Fitbit has had to recall its latest Force fitness tracker after some users developed a rash from wearing it.

There have even been reports of some users gaining weight after using fitness trackers.

Said Mr Jonathan Collins, principal analyst of market research firm ABI Research: "While there is a danger that such adverse publicity could have an impact, these devices are providing guidelines and feedback about levels of activity that have previously not been available to consumers."

Exercise physiologist Ray Loh from Tan Tock Seng Hospital's sports medicine and surgery clinic said fitness trackers should be used for tracking physical activities and to act as an encouragement to users to reach the targeted amount of physical activities.

And it is personal interest in fitness, not advertising promises, that has driven people to buy these trendy wearable devices.

Race driver and fitness celebrity Claire Jedrek, 31, said she bought her Jawbone Up24 to see what all the fuss was about. What blew her away, she said, was the sleep tracker rather than the step counter.

"I honestly feel the fitness tracker is way more useful in monitoring my sleep patterns. It wakes me up without disturbing my partner and always manages to get me up no matter how tired I am," she said.

To entice users to stay within their ecosystems, makers of fitness trackers use proprietary scoring systems, such as NikeFuel points and Fitbit Active Score. Some users go all out to make sure they reach their targets, in order to rack up these points.

Mr Ngoh Seh Suan, 34, an insurance agent who uses a Fitbit Flex fitness tracker, said he walks the 4km to his own home after sending his girlfriend home.

He said he was keen on accuracy when he started using a fitness tracker, but has since lowered his expectations after realising that he can score just by "using a handheld fan to fan myself".

Now, he uses his tracker as a general reference to monitor his physical activities because he feels that it is better than no reference at all.

"It's going to get tougher at a later age. Without any monitoring, I am far more likely to forget about this long-term priority of maintaining a healthy activity level," he said.

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