How do Fitness Trackers Count Steps?

Did you know that if you walk without moving your arms, your fitness tracker may not count your steps? Also, if you remain stationary and wave your arms around, you may fool it into believing you are walking or running. That’s right.

Most of the fitness trackers I’ve encountered have this flaw. It’s pretty common, since many gadgets use arm movement to estimate the number of steps the user takes. But this issue isn’t insurmountable. You can avoid it through hacks like wearing your tracker on the non-dominant hand. Is your interest piqued? Read on to find out more.

So, How Does My Fitness Tracker Count Steps?

Most of the fitness trackers available today count steps using a three-axis accelerometer. This sensor monitors the wearer’s arm movements in all directions. Remember, while walking or running, you move your arms. As you take a step with a specific limb moving forward, the arm on the same side swings in an opposing direction.

Speaking to Live Science, Northern University associate professor based in Boston, Stephen Intille, said that most step counters usually use a type of motion sensor called an accelerometer. 

“If you think about that as a little curve, you are going to get little peaks and valleys every time that you step and go,” he said. “That’s your body going back and forth.”

Intille further noted that the algorithms in the step counter analyze those peaks and valleys, trying to figure out how often they occur.

“After the accelerometer sees some amount of frequency of movement that looks like walking or stepping, it starts to count each of these peaks, which end up being a step.”

Arm swinging in humans is intriguing, no doubt. That said, scientists have found a simple explanation for it. According to them, people must swing their arms while walking because it makes everything easier and reduces energy expenditure.

After recording your arm movements, fitness trackers translate the data into activities and steps.

Read Also: Which Arm Should I Wear My Fitbit On?

Does My Smartwatch Track My Steps Accurately? And Can I Help it be More Accurate?

Although most quality fitness trackers count steps reasonably well, they are not flawless. Remember, as I mentioned earlier, your smartwatch uses arm movements to monitor motion. Therefore, the device can wrongly interpret many other activities that require you to swing your arms as steps, like playing drums, folding napkins, waving, etc.

Additionally, some gadgets have sensors designed to detect motion through changes in acceleration. These, too, can be fooled by activities that produce significant vibrations, like riding a bus on a bumpy area or prepping a wooden surface with a random orbital sander.

That said, the hacks below can help you improve your fitness tracker’s accuracy and minimize false counts:

  • Wear your gadget on the wrist of your non-dominant. I’ve found this incredibly helpful since I use my dominant hand for cooking, petting my pup, greeting people, etc. And most of the time I swing it, my fitness tracker interprets the motion as walking, leading to false step counts.
  • Ensure your tracker is secured firmly on your wrist. Don’t wear it too loose because every time it flops around, you risk getting false readings. Not to mention, a loose smartwatch is likely to record inaccurate heart readings since it doesn’t maintain consistent contact with the skin. Don’t secure your fitness tracker too tightly because it might lead to issues like wrist pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • If, like me, you like to indulge in activities like baking or woodworking now and then, remove your fitness tracker before kicking off. That will help you minimize false step counts and wrong data. Conversely, note down the additional steps the gadget logs in during such activities and subtract them later.
  • My fitness tracker notifies me every time developers release a new firmware update, and I suspect yours does the same. Never ignore updates. They are indispensable in enhancing your wearable’s performance by improving the algorithm and fixing bugs. Some also incorporate new features that can help you in your fitness journey.
  • Calibrate your device frequently. That will help it learn your stride and fitness level. Check your smartwatch’s user guide for detailed instructions on how to do that.
  • Most importantly, don’t lie about your height, weight, and gender. Your device uses these factors to estimate stride length, calories burnt, etc. So be honest. And if anything changes significantly, like adding or losing a lot of weight, adjust the values in your fitness tracker.

Read Also: Do Smartwatches and Fitness Watches Accurately Track Calories?

How Do Fitness Trackers Handle False Step Counts?

Although fitness trackers are susceptible to erroneous counts, quality gadgets use different solutions to minimize this problem. Some rely on advanced algorithms tailored to detect and categorize motion accurately. By doing so, the algorithm can identify when a fitness tracker’s wearer is walking or running and when other movements are involved, like waving.

Moreover, many gadgets allow users to specify what they do at a specific time, like biking, swimming, or running. And when a fitness tracker knows the activity you are engaged in at a particular moment, it becomes better positioned to count steps and provide accurate reporting.

Finally, some high-end fitness trackers have multiple sensors besides a three-axis accelerometer. For instance, some have gyroscopes, which can track the orientation and rotation of a fitness tracker, which is crucial in preventing false step counts.

Read Also: Can Fitbit Track You on a Treadmill?

How Often Should I Calibrate My Fitness Tracker for Accuracy, and What are the Steps?

Calibrate My Fitness Tracker

Calibrating your fitness tracker is indispensable because it improves the gadget’s accuracy. How often, you ask? The answer depends on the manufacturer’s recommendation. For example, a Galaxy Watch needs to be recalibrated every 28 days.

For the best results, calibrate your fitness tracker as often as possible. If you notice any discrepancies with the device’s step count, do it immediately. Also, consider recalibrating it every time you switch to a new activity.

That brings us to a crucial question: how can you calibrate a fitness tracker? The exact steps depend on the gadget you are using.

Let’s consider the Apple Watch as an example. If you use this device for fitness tracking, open Settings, navigate to Privacy, and tap Location Services. Ensure the toggle on Location Services indicates it’s on. Then go to System Services and turn on Motion Calibration & Distance. Apple Watch has made things easier for fitness enthusiasts by designing gadgets that automatically calibrate whenever users do a specific activity for 20 minutes.

The recalibration process for different devices is available online. A little digging is all you need to find the exact steps for calibrating your fitness tracker.

Read Also: Fitbit Counting Steps While Driving – How Do I Stop It?

Final Thoughts

A fitness tracker helps you stay active, healthy, and in good shape by counting your steps and monitoring other vital elements. That said, false step counts often affect the accuracy of fitness trackers, courtesy of their inherent design. But I’ve kept this issue at bay using various tricks, including wearing my smartwatch on the non-dominant hand. Try them out. Most importantly, prioritize updating your gadget’s firmware and calibrating it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. 

Read Also: 9 Fitness Trackers Without Bluetooth

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Fitness Trackers Count Steps Accurately for All Activities?

Fitness trackers may not be as accurate for activities that involve less consistent movements, such as cycling or weightlifting. They are optimized for activities with a consistent back-and-forth motion, like walking or running.

Do All Fitness Trackers Use the Same Step-counting Technology?

Different fitness tracker manufacturers may use variations of accelerometer technology and algorithms, so the methods can vary. However, the basic principle of measuring acceleration and movement remains consistent.

Can I Manually Adjust Step Counts on a Fitness Tracker?

Some fitness trackers allow you to manually edit step counts, but this can potentially skew the accuracy of your overall activity data. It’s generally better to rely on the device’s automated tracking, as it aims to provide a more accurate representation of your activity.

Can I Wear a Fitness Tracker Anywhere on My Body?

While most fitness trackers are designed to be worn on the wrist, some can also be clipped to clothing or placed in a pocket. Wrist-worn trackers tend to be more accurate due to their proximity to your body’s natural motion.

Can Fitness Trackers Count Steps Accurately for People With Different Walking Styles?

Fitness trackers can be adjusted for different walking styles and stride lengths. Many devices allow you to input your stride length manually or will estimate it based on your height and gender.

How Do Fitness Trackers Track Other Activities Besides Steps?

Fitness trackers often incorporate additional sensors beyond accelerometers, such as heart rate monitors, GPS, and gyroscopes. These sensors help the tracker differentiate between various types of activities, like running, cycling, or swimming.

Can I Use My Smartphone as a Fitness Tracker?

Many smartphones also come with built-in accelerometers and fitness-tracking apps that can count steps and monitor activity. However, dedicated fitness trackers often provide more accurate and detailed data due to specialized hardware and algorithms.

Read Also: Which stretching technique do experts recommend for general fitness?