Your Fitness Tracker May be Wrong, but that Doesn't Make it Bad

Nike has agreed to pay out US$2.4 million to settle a lawsuit where it and Apple were accused of misleading consumers into believing the Nike FuelBand logged accurate fitness tracking data. The pain point in the settlement isn't the money; instead, it's the fact that most fitness trackers simply aren't accurate.

Nike FuelBand settlement value is in education, not money.Nike FuelBand settlement value is in education, not money.

In the Nike case, consumers complained about inaccurate fitness tracking data such as calorie counts were wrong, and that the FuelBand was marketed and sold as if the information it logged was correct. They sued Nike and Apple because both companies were marketing the device. Apple doesn't have to pay out any money as part of the settlement deal.

While the settlement makes the lawsuit go away, and some FuelBand owners will get to choose between US$15 cash or a $25 Nike gift card, the bigger issue still remains. Most fitness trackers aren't accurately recording data and manufacturers aren't making that clear.

I've tried several fitness trackers and found their daily step counts vary widely, calorie counts never match, and almost every device tracks flights of stairs differently. That raises a big problem for the average person trying to accurately log their activity while getting back in shape.

The fix, at least for now, lets fitness tracker makers off the hook. Instead of looking at devices for accuracy, use them to track trends and create a sense of personal accountability. If your daily step counts are getting lower, for example, it's time to get more walking in.

That doesn't fix the accuracy issue, but it does at least make fitness trackers useful on some level.

My negative stance on fitness trackers is really just a frustration—I've been using a Fitbit for years and I credit it with playing a major role in my weight loss. The average user expects the step and calorie counts on their new tracker to be accurate when they aren't, and that can lead to disappointment and ultimately a return to old habits and sedentary ways.

It's easy to give up on fitness trackers by using the excuse that they aren't accurate, and that's a sad mistake. Instead, the trick is to find one that works for you. For me, that was the Fitbit One and for my friend Peter Cohen at iMore, it was the Apple Watch.

Peter, by the way, has taken an amazing journey that makes my personal fitness efforts seem almost like an afterthought. I'm so proud of what he's accomplished and if we ever have an opportunity to run together I'll have to fight back the tears of joy. Or I could just say there's something in my eye.

The point is that we both found the right tracker to motivate us in ways we couldn't imagine before, and it doesn't matter that they may not offer 100 percent step-for-step accuracy. What they've given us are new lives, technology limitations and deficiencies be damned.

Instead of using the Nike settlement as justification for not starting, look at it as an education. Now we all know fitness trackers have limitations, and that helps to make the right buying decision.

Ask your friends what they use, and why they like the device they have. I'm still using my Fitbit One for my daily fitness tracking. It logs my steps reliably, the battery lasts for a week between charges, and it tracks my sleep patterns, too. My Apple Watch supplements the Fitbit by reminding me to step away from me desk and get active, plus it gives me real time distance data during hikes and runs I can't get from my Fitbit display.

Properly calibrating your device helps improve accuracy, too. After I calibrated my Apple Watch, for example, I found its daily step counts were surprisingly close to my Fitbit. I'm not sure if that means both devices offer fairly accurate data, or if they're using similar sensors and algorithms to track my activity.

My Fitbit (left) and Apple Watch (right) track steps similarly after calibration.My Fitbit (left) and Apple Watch (right) track steps similarly after calibration.

Engineers from Fitbit and Basis—another fitness tracker company—have told me both companies have spent an amazing amount of time working on accuracy, and considering the results I get from their products are similar, I'm inclined to believe them. That doesn't mean I can trust all of the data they show me is completely accurate; instead, it means I've found three companies, if you include Apple, that present consistent enough results that I feel comfortable using their products to track my fitness trends.

Maybe it's a good thing Nike got out of the fitness tracker business and is focusing on developing apps instead. Consumers felt they couldn't rely on the FuelBand's data, but their Nike+ Running app is popular and Apple tagged it as an essential app. Nike can pay off its FuelBand settlement and continue to make software people like, and we can find other fitness trackers that better suit out needs.

For now, I'll be sticking with my Fitbit One and Apple Watch combo.

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]