TMI Or Helpful? – The Data Fitness Trackers Collect

Three women at the studio, checking their data on their phones

I’m overweight, according to online BMI calculators. My phone tells me I don’t walk enough. My heart rate monitor jumps from zero to max multiple times throughout my workouts. I feel like it’s a Wednesday, and I’m wearing an oversized pink rugby shirt, sitting with a bunch of passive-aggressive pretty girls. I want to know more about the information that fitness trackers collect, but do I trust it? Is it helpful? 

Certified strength and conditioning coach, Evan Lee says it can be, if you know the right information to look at and how all that data works together.  For example, the OG tracker, the scale only tells one part: Your weight. “It doesn’t provide context,” says Lee, who is the head of programming at FitTrack. (I’m using its Dara scale.)

“Muscle weighs more than fat,” is a familiar fitness trope I tell myself when I hit a scale. And Lee reminds me of this when he says: “There are more metrics that come into play to tell the full story about your fitness and your body … What I love about data is that it’s providing actual context behind the big elephant in the room, which is weight.”

So, let’s get into the data on fitness trackers and what it all means. What is this story?

How trackers work

Fitness and body trackers use calculators to figure out different data. 

Performance-wise, trackers collect data, such as heart rate and motion, along with other information, such as gender, height, weight, age etc., to give you more data, like steps, calories burned, fat burning zone, speed and so on. 

Body trackers, like smart scales, also use calculators. When you step on the metal pads on the Dara scale, the machine sends signals to the body called bioelectrical impedance analysis. Depending on how long it can take, that calculates the composition of the individual, says Lee. The accuracy of Dara is within plus or minus three per cent accuracy of a medical DEXA scan (bone density X-ray).

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What is BMI? How is it calculated?

Lee says doctors and physicians use the body mass index (BMI) to track general health, such as risk for certain diseases and conditions, including diabetes, heart issues, bone health and more.

Here’s how BMI is calculated:

(weight in kilograms ÷ height in metres)2

Then the BMI number is classified into these categories

Underweight: less than 18.5
Normal weight: 18.5 to 24.9 
Overweight: 25 to 29.9 
Obesity: 30 or more

Like I said, I’m overweight according to my body mass index. On its own, BMI misses out on body composition, just like a weight scale does. It doesn’t account for bone or muscle mass, and it’s been deemed as a flawed measurement tool. Lee says that is because it only accounts for “your height to weight ratio. When I was training for football and rugby, and within bulk mode, I was definitely in the obesity category. So, I feel you,” he tells me.

“It’s not perfect, but as an overarching tool, depending on your goal, it can help educate you on overall health.” 

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What is muscle rate? What is body fat percentage?

It’s what you think it is: The amount of muscle and body fat that is composed as part of your body weight. (About that muscle weighing more than fat thing… Yeah, so turns out my muscle mass is on the high-end for women in my age group.) It’s a key metric key for anyone who is looking at gaining strength or even combatting age-related muscle loss, says Lee.

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What is protein rate?

This one for me was a head scratcher. Do I need to count macros on my body, too? Kind of, says Lee. “That is the amount of protein in your body. It’s the amount of protein available in the muscles, organs and bones. [Tracking this] is about developing the habit of eating good protein sources. Most people don’t eat enough protein.”

I’m a card-carrying carb queen. But I do eat protein at dinner, after my 5:30 workouts. “So, it is excellent that you’re getting a protein after your workout. But you do want to have some kind of steady sources of protein throughout your day.” He explains how protein works: “When you work out and exercise, your muscle fibres basically rip apart. And getting stronger is when those muscle fibres increase by repairing, which is protein synthesis. And that requires protein to help that happen.” It could also explain my weak nails, too. 

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What’s bone mass?

You’re getting the picture here of what’s happening when you hit the scale. So it also measures how much your bones weigh. “That’s one thing I always had my mind,” Lee says about the opportunity to monitor bone mass, specifically for his mom who had osteoporosis.  “Supplementing with calcium and vitamin D is a great way to mitigate bone loss. She actually ended up putting her osteoporosis in remission, which is awesome.”

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Other metrics on FitTrack Dara

Lee likes the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of calories burned at rest. “It’s about making a positive impact on your body for long-term health with basal metabolic rate. It’s so important.”

Here’s how to estimate your BMR:

655 + (9.6 × weight in kg) + (1.8 × height in cm) – (4.7 × age in years)

There are a lot more metrics. Like a lot. Get ready for the list on top of the ones I just covered: Body water, weight control, weight without fat, standard weight, fat mass, subcutaneous fat, visceral fat index and metabolic age.

So, these things will not add up to 100 per cent, says Lee. For example, body fat percentage and water percentage are not part of the same calculations, so instead of thinking of tracking tools as measuring your body as a whole, look at the different metric points as monitoring points. 

“The different metrics have different impacts. Some you can see an immediate impact and other things you might see them fluctuate, like your weight. Or you can look at some data as a long-term trend of your overall health. It depends on what your goals are […] to see how your lifestyle exercise nutrition is impacting your health.”

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Using trackers in a healthy way

The information can be helpful toward goals, and Lee advises to use FitTrack Dara daily. But how can such use lead to a healthy relationship with numbers attached to the body? How can you not become preoccupied with the data?

Lee says it’s key to recognize that there are numbers that fluctuate (what’s normal for you) and what is a baseline (also what’s normal for you), and important to know the difference. 

Get a paper journal, in addition to your fit tech, he says, and make notes about the positive changes you’re seeing and how that is reflected in the data. Do this as often as you need to for perspective. “Awareness, introspection, reflection, and action,” says Lee. 

And, it’s also about positioning the information with behaviours that are healthy (exercise, eating more protein, supplementing for bone health) and the positive impacts (getting stronger, sleeping better, feeling energetic), and putting those all into context of each other. 

So, recognizing that while I’m considered to be “overweight,” I’m also damn strong.

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