Why The NY Times Thinks Activity Trackers Are Truly Limited

Why The NY Times Thinks Activity Trackers Are Truly  Limited

The newspaper's Wired Well section looks into what trackers can and can't do.

Leah Gonzalez Angue
  • 12 march 2014

In a recent post, the NY Times’ Wired Well section lists down some of the capabilities and limitations of activity trackers today and presents the way these devices track specific movements with corresponding activity charts.

Health and activity trackers all have an accelerometer to record changes in movements relative to the device. It tracks up-and-down, side-to-side, and front-to-back motions.

Wristband trackers use accelerometers to measure motion and use proprietary algorithms to analyze motion and convert that into data that the wearer can understand like calories burned and number of steps taken.

Activity tackers use their built-in accelerometer to count steps by watching out for periodic motion with acceleration above a specific threshold. Trackers not only measure motion, but also record the times when the wearer is not in motion.


Activity trackers can easily track movements like walking and running, but have limitations when it comes to stationary exercises. A tracker won’t be able to tell the difference when the wearer is simply sitting at a desk or doing wall sit-ups. It also won’t be able to tell if the wearer is exerting effort while lifting weights without moving from a spot. Wired Well also notes that wristband trackers can’t tell when the wearer is cycling.

The algorithms used by activity trackers can be inconsistent and are not able to differentiate between various body movements. Simple activities like eating or folding laundry are recorded and included in the wearer’s activity log.

Although activity trackers still can’t decipher every exercise or movement, they are able to give a description of the wearer’s overall activity level, and companies are working constantly to improve how these trackers work.

Well on NY Times
Header image: alexhung

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