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Home / Tips and Tricks / Your smartwatch is probably bad at tracking steps – and that’s okay – Review Geek

Your smartwatch is probably bad at tracking steps – and that’s okay – Review Geek

The Fitbit Versa and Apple Watch Series 3
Cameron Summerson

Many people are obsessed with “taking their steps in it” every day, but counting steps is a weird thing. Especially since you can wear three different fitness trackers (or smartwatches) and get three different results on any given day. But here̵

7;s the thing: “Accuracy” is overrated.

Almost anything you wear on your wrist to track steps is bad at step tracking

If you ask 100 people how fitness trackers to smartwatches track steps, you’ll probably get 100 different answers (or maybe 10, but whatever). The truth is, it’s complicated. There are, however, some basic rules.

The Fitbit Charge 3 on a white background
Michael Crider

Most trackers use three-axis accelerometers to track arm movement in any direction, which can be loosely translated into steps. Most trackers will fetch roughly the same data here, but where things start to differ is how this data set is interpreted. That’s where algorithms come into play.

This is really what sets one manufacturer apart – the way they use the tracker’s data. For example, a device can interpret any type of movement as a “step” and dramatically overestimate how many steps you actually took. On the other hand, another device from a different manufacturer can be much more conservative in how it calculates steps, which could end up underestimating what you’re doing that day.

Wearable has a great explanation of how fitness trackers calculate steps if you want to dig deeper, but that’s the general gist.

But in the end it doesn’t matter how your tracker calculates steps – it’s about actually using it and sticking to it.

Accuracy isn’t everything, it’s cracked to be

Let me tell you a secret: accuracy not really matter. Hell, who’s to say what’s even “accurate,” especially when it comes to something as random as step counting? Who’s to say what even counts as a ‘step’.

The Garmin Venu 2S next to the Garmin Venu
Cameron Summerson

I’ve tested a ton of different fitness trackers and smartwatches over the years and have found that some are more than double what I get from others. For example, when I was on Fitbit, it detected all my bike rides as steps. Do you know how many steps you take on a 60-mile ride? A lot of. And that drove me crazy! Even when I tracked my rides with Fitbit cycling mode, it still gave me about 20k extra steps for the day.

That’s because Fitbit’s algorithm is designed to appreciate that kind of movement, no matter where it comes from.

On the other hand, I’m on a Garmin watch now, and it’s much more conservative with step counting. It doesn’t detect time on the bike as steps (thankfully), but it also doesn’t detect mowing or pushing a shopping cart as steps. Why? Because Garmin’s algorithms are designed to use arm movements as the primary method of step tracking.

So, which one is more accurate? Technically, Fitbit gives me “step credit” when I mow or go shopping, but overshoot it when I’m on my bike. Garmin solves the cycling problem, but doesn’t give me steps to mow or shop.

So neither is technically “accurate”. But as long as I wear one or the other consistently, it doesn’t matter.

And consistency is key

The Fitbit Versa on a man's wrist
Cameron Summerson

I’ve said this about other things before, but I think people (myself included, to a fault) become obsessed with what’s “accurate” and forget what’s important: consistency.

Use the same tracker every day. If you get a new one, stick with the same brand. You get consistent results day in and day out, so you can easily compare one day to the next.

Over time, you’ll learn the quirks of your particular fitness tracker, just like I did with my Fitbit. I knew it would give me 10-20k more steps if I wore it on the bike, so I either didn’t wear it for that period (because I’m tracking my rides elsewhere) or I mentally adapted. Now, on Garmin, I take off my watch and put it in my pocket when I mow (so it detects the movement) or tracks it as a walk. Anyway I get it consistently Results.

This allows me to easily compare my day-to-day. There was a small adjustment period when I switched from Fitbit to Garmin, so if you To do decide to change brands, just know that they probably won’t follow in the same way. Don’t panic because you are suddenly 5k above or below your previous average, just get used to the new tracker and adjust to the new baseline.


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