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Whatever you’re up to, there’s a wearable that can measure it, says Matt Pluckrose of Desktop Ideas

Wearable gadgets have exploded into our marketplace over recent months and are fast becoming the new hot item for promotional marketers. Smart bracelets, watches and glasses are now offered by major technology and sports brands such as SONY, Nike, Apple, Jawbone, and FitBit.

Current growth projections suggest that these products will become as much a part of our everyday life as smartphones and tablets. But do any of us really have any idea how they work? This month we attempt to answer some of these questions…

How fitness trackers work

Almost all of today’s fitness bracelets are based on a three-component ‘accelerometer’ that measures acceleration (intensity and direction of movement) against three directions referred to as the X, Y and Z axes. Most accelerometers consist of two electrically charged plates and a small counterbalance in between. When the sensor is still, the counterbalance is located right in the middle. However, once you start moving, the counterbalance moves from one plate to another and the sensor registers the motion.

The device needs to have good software to enable this data to be easily viewed and analysed, normally on the user’s smartphone. Different gadgets use different algorithms to calculate the gathered data. Some count steps or calories, while others such as Nike FuelBand convert data into their own units – fuel in Nike’s case.

Communication between wearable and device varies but most are synced with a smartphone via Bluetooth. However, in order to save battery life, Jawbone UP! syncs with an iPhone via an embedded mini jack and earphone jack. 

How accurate are wearables?

This varies across devices, but it’s clear that modern trackers are more accurate than traditional low cost pedometers. Research across all the major brands has shown some that tend to flatter their users and some are tougher on the user. For example, 0.25 miles is approximately 540 steps on a regular wearable device, but there can be a variance of 20% across devices. 

How does a tracker measure calories burned?

The human body is constantly expending calories and your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the sum total of all the calories burned by your body doing these fundamental tasks. It accounts for the majority of calories burned.

Trackers estimate your basal calories using a formula which includes your height, weight, gender and age. Your BMR is the number of calories you need to consume on a daily basis to maintain your weight. If you want to lose weight, you need to burn calories in excess of your BMR. The calorie total that is recorded on your tracker is a calculation of the calories that you burn in addition to your BMR.

Some trackers calculate calorie burns for specific activities. For example, a tracker may apply a different formula to calculate calorie expenditure for cycling than it does for swimming or running. Other trackers attempt to more accurately measure calorie burn by incorporating additional measurements. Fitbit uses an altimeter to enable it to give more credit (more calories burned) to walking up steps than walking on a flat surface.

The essential thing to remember is that if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to increase your calorie burn by a designated amount. As long as you’re tracking with the same device, you will have the consistency.

Can a tracker assess the quality of my sleep?

Many activity trackers also monitor sleep at a basic level. Trackers and apps measure body movement and are essentially bedtime activity trackers. Most trackers make the assumption that the less you move at night, the better your sleep quality, although there is disagreement as to whether this is valid. The one point that everyone agrees with is that tracking your sleep even with a less-than-perfect device can raise awareness about sleep, which is vital for health.

Wearable Technology is advancing rapidly and undoubtedly is in massive demand both by consumers and businesses that want to reward their staff, clients or stakeholders. It’s an area we all need to watch carefully and ensure we are talking to our clients about it before our competitors do.

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