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Fitness Monitors

Activity Trackers: Is The Reward Worth The Risk?

If flipping through TV channels on any given night is an indication of where today’s society is headed, I think it’s safe to say that the trend in physical fitness is continuing to pick up speed.

With programs like The Biggest Loser, My 600-lb Life, and Extreme Weight Loss playing regularly, staying healthy and losing weight are topics that have been pushed to the forefront of our culture.

Participating in youth sports can serve as a great way to help children fight the rate of childhood obesity, but with hectic school and extra-curricular schedules and endless parent to-do lists, staying physically active and eating right isn’t always easy.

As the trend in healthy lifestyle choices continues to rise, but daily routines never seem to slow down, it should come as no surprise that activity trackers are taking the consumer market by storm.

Fitness MonitorsDevices like the FitBit, Jawbone UP24, and Nike+ FuelBand are designed to help users become more active, eat a more well-rounded diet, sleep more soundly, and ultimately create a healthier lifestyle.

With potential benefits including weight loss, a community of motivation, and a heightened awareness of one’s own unhealthy habits, very few users stop to consider what possible negatives could come from wearing such devices.

Online Exposure

These activity monitoring gadgets are putting technology directly onto the body, increasing the cumulative exposure to radiowaves among users who are already toting around smartphones, laptops, and other mobile devices.

According to Fox News, most health monitoring gadgets are using Bluetooth technology to report information, which emits much lower levels of radio-frequency than cellphones and other Wi-Fi emitting devices. Items like FitBit use Bluetooth Low Energy, which uses an even lower strength technology than the classic Bluetooth used in headsets – meaning the gadget is operating at powers dramatically less than that of cellphones.

The FitBit’s output power is actually so low that it is not required to be tested for Specific Absorption Rate, a measure of the rate at which energy is absorbed by the human body when exposed to radio-frequency radiation.

But not everyone is reassured by the low Bluetooth rating.

Devra Davis, PhD, MPH, epidemiologist and founder of the Environmental Health Trust, brought light to the fact that consumers, “have no information whatsoever on the long-term health effects of wearable fitness-tracking devices.” Lacking evidence does not necessarily mean the product is safe. Even though the radio-frequency levels are low, the activity trackers are still collecting and sending data throughout the day and night – emitting waves that are similar to cellphones.

In the argument that cellphones involve phone-to-head contact, whereas activity trackers are worn on the body, Devra argues that regardless of the intentions, the brain can still receive significant nighttime exposure to the harmful waves if the user sleeps with their hands near their head.

And she’s not the only one with doubts. Hugh S. Taylor, MD, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, expressed concern over the devices, especially in pregnant women. When you have a device worn on the body as a watch, it is more likely that the stomach will have increased exposure when the user’s arms are straight down or resting on their stomach. “I worry that wearables may increase our total exposure. All that radiation will be adding up. Wearables are something you’re more likely to keep on your body, so you’re more likely to have a sustained close exposure.”

Offline Exposure

The long-term effects of radiowaves aren’t the only thing consumers need to consider. Forbes released an article reminding users that wearable activity-tracking devices are vulnerable to location tracking. In the event that your device is hacked, when/where you typically run, where you live, your age, sex, height, and weight are just a few of the details that could fall into the wrong hands.

Symantec published a report finding that 52 percent of fitness tracking apps examined did not make privacy policies available. It suggests that information could be found useful to governments, marketers, businesses, “and of course cybercriminals.” Some of the applications tested by Symantec were sending a signal to as many as 15 different remote locations.

The report recommends that users turn off the Bluetooth automatic sync if the device isn’t being used and manually press the sync button each time you want your data to transmit.

Healthy or Health Hazard?

In the end, the benefits gained from wearing an activity tracker are proven. The risks are still formulating in the ‘potential’ and ‘future’ stage. Will this be enough to deter consumers from continuing to wear their devices?

Only time will tell if these activity trackers are a fleeting trend or if they’re here to stay.

Do you plan to purchase or continue wearing an activity tracking device? Share in the comments below how you feel about benefits versus the risks!

Kris Baker

Kris Baker is the President of Demosphere and has been serving the Youth Sports Community since 2006.