Your Child Doesn’t Need an Activity-Tracker

Physical activity in childhood has been associated with numerous benefits. These include social and scholastic benefits such as better social skill development, increased readiness for school in younger children and increased attention and learning capacity; mental health benefits including reduced depression and anxiety, building self-confidence, and developing emotional skills; and health benefits such as building muscles, bones and joints faster, increasing strength, and reducing fat and lowering blood pressure.

In addition, active children have fewer chronic health problems, are sick less frequently, miss less school, and have a significantly reduced risk for many childhood and adult diseases including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, and mental illness.1

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children should be active at least 60 minutes per day, including aerobic, muscle strengthening and bone strengthening movement. A physically active lifestyle develops very early in childhood and stays relatively similar throughout one’s life.2 While it’s possible to increase one’s activity later in life, establishing an active lifestyle at an early age makes that likelihood greater.

A recent development in the bid to increase children’s activity is child-friendly activity-trackers. Activity-trackers are marketed as helping to create healthy habits and getting kids moving. They differ from adult trackers in that most do not track food intake, nor measure BMI, which isn’t an appropriate childhood measurement. While many are available and vary in how they motivate or entice children, in general they track steps and active moments, plus sleeping time. After reaching specific milestones, such as specific number of steps or other goals, they provide rewards like“winning” against other kids or family members.

There are some health concerns:

  1. Looking at health as a number (such as number of steps, or activity time), disconnects us from the concept of overall health. Activity provides so many benefits — emotional, mental, etc. — that when it’s parsed down to one number or goal, those benefits may be lessened. Especially for developing children, this can give a warped view towards health, as they’re not thinking about moving for pleasure or relaxation, but rather because of outside motivation, which can lead to disordered approaches to movement, obsessive behavior and even eating disorders, as these have been associated with high levels of exercise.
  2. It takes the fun out of play. By encouraging or forcing children to monitor and keep track of every moment of activity, they lose their innate joy of movement and may become discouraged and possibly disillusioned from staying active.
  3. It places the responsibility on children, rather than the parents. While parents can help kids set goals on these devices, it’s generally up to the child to meet them. And this can be difficult for children, as there are many factors within the environment — often out of children’s control — that influence the physical activity that a child engages in.
  4. They may increase anxiety. If a child feels the need to reach a goal and it isn’t realistically achievable for their age or ability, that can cause great anxiety. Additionally, when achievements are shared with family and peers, the competition and publicity can also increase anxiety and discomfort.

What to Do Instead

A balanced approach to physical activity, along with a positive body image and self-esteem, are important aspects of a healthy childhood. Staying active in a fun and intuitive way can help promote this. You don’t need to sign up for a gym class, lift weights or run a marathon. Activity is dancing to music, jumping rope outside, playing a pick-up game of soccer, or even a game of tag.

The summer provides so many easy ways to get active, but it needs to be modeled and normalized by parents and adults. Start walking or biking to short distances, visit parks and playgrounds, and bring along a frisbee or ball. Take the family for a walk or hike in the park, dust off those bikes for a ride, and just get outside and moving more — activity-trackers not included.

1. SPARK (2011). The importance of early childhood activity.
2. Telama, R., Yang, X., Leskinin, E., Kankaanpaa, A., Hirvensalo, M., Tammelin, T., et al. (2014). Tracking of Physical Activity from Early Childhood through Youth into Adulthood. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 46(5) 955-962
3. NA (2016). Fitness trackers putting kids at risk, says child psychologist.
4. Ghose, T. (2014). Fitness Trackers Could Boost Kids’ Health, but Face Challenges, Experts Say.

Bracha Kopstick is a registered dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Contact her at