THE TECHNIQUE Behind The Magic: How Trackers Work

Your activity tracker knows a great deal about you as well as your daily habits, but how much do you know about your activity tracker? We asked Robert Havasy and Tim Hale, our tech experts at the Center for Connected Health, to describe the magic behind these amazing gizmos. What’s the root technology of a task tracker-in other words, what makes a tracker tick? Walk, run, run, sit, sleep or dance all night as well as your tracker will dutifully record every move you make. So how exactly does it take action?

All trackers rely on a single basic primary technology-an accelerometer, which steps acceleration, which is the path and intensity of motion. If we only moved in a single direction, tracking activity would be pretty simple, but that’s false. We reside in three-dimensions: We progress and backward, still left and right, and up-and down. Unlike old school pedometers which were designed to just track forward motion-that is, they counted steps and distance in a linear path-any modern tracker well worth its salt catches data from all three axes concurrently. Think Just like a Tracker: This graph shows how your tracker “sees” different patterns in your movements as you start your day to day activities.

For example, walking or operating will create a pulse in the Z-axis, or and down movement up. Software can interpret the frequency of pulses to tell apart between running (high frequency) and walking (low frequency). Similarly, cycling will create a bigger bang on the X-axis (ahead movement) and only whimper on the Z-axis (along).

It’s not magic, it’s just math! Despite similarities in technology, each tracker has its way of crunching the data. That’s why some trackers might be better at keeping track of calorie consumption, detecting the intensity of your fitness center work-out, or monitoring the pivots and dunks of golf ball. It also explains why our Wellocracy testers who wore several tracker at the same time often found discrepancies in the info collected in one brand to some other. So how exactly does a tracker measure calories burned?

The human body is constantly expending calories merely to stay alive. Breathing, thinking, digesting and sleeping your meal all consume calories. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the total of all calories burned by your system just doing these fundamental tasks; it makes up about almost all calories burnt by your system.

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Your tracker quotes your basal calories using a method predicated on the Harris-Benedict formula, which include your elevation, weight, age and gender. Your BMR is the amount 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 more than your BMR.

The calorie total that is recorded on your tracker is a computation of the calories that you burn in addition to your BMR. In other words, it’s based on the tracker’s best computation of how active you are beyond simply burning up calories to run the body and perform the tasks of lifestyle.

Some trackers estimate calorie uses up for specific activities. For example, a tracker may apply a different formula to calculate calorie expenditure for bicycling than it can for going swimming or running. Other trackers try to more accurately measure calorie burn by incorporating additional measurements. For instance, Body Media uses skin temperature to calibrate intensity of activity, the assumption being the warmer the skin, the more extreme the workout and the more calories burned.

Fitbit uses an altimeter (barometric measure sensor) which helps it estimate altitude gain and enables it to give more credit (more calories from fat burned) to walking up steps than walking on a flat surface. So, how important is accuracy right down to the nearest calorie? It’s most likely not that important actually. Can a tracker evaluate the quality of my sleep?

Many activity trackers also monitor sleep, as do several applications offered on smartphones. At the brief moment, no home tracker or app can perform a sleep study that is equivalent to the polysomnogram, which is conducted at a sleep middle. The polysomnogram gauges brain activity, eye motion heart rhythm and muscle movements to determine sleep quality.