Your Smartwatch Probably Sucks at Step Tracking—And That’s Okay

Cameron Summerson

A lot of people are obsessed with “getting their steps in” every day, but step counts are a weird thing. Mostly because you can wear three different fitness trackers (or smartwatches) and get three different results on any given day. But here’s the thing: “Accuracy” is overrated.

Almost Anything You Wear on Your Wrist to Track Steps Sucks at Tracking Steps

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

The Fitbit Charge 3 on a white background
Michael Crider

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

This is really what sets one manufacturer apart from the other—the way they use the data from the tracker. For example, one device might interpret every type of movement as a “step” and dramatically overestimate how many steps you’ve actually taken. On the other hand, a different device from another manufacturer might be much more conservative in how it calculates steps, which could ultimately underestimate what you’re doing for the day.

Wearable has a great explainer on how fitness trackers calculate steps if you’d like to dig in deeper, but that’s the general gist.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how your tracker calculates steps—what matters is that you actually use it and stick with it.

Accuracy Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Let me tell you a secret: Accuracy doesn’t really matter. Hell, who is really to say what’s even “accurate”—especially when it comes to something as arbitrary as step counting? Who’s to say what even counts as a “step.”

The Garmin Venu 2S next the Garmin Venu
Cameron Summerson

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

That’s because Fitbit’s algorithm is designed to give credit for that sort of movement, regardless of where it comes from.

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

So, which one is more accurate? Technically, Fitbit gives me “step credit” when I mow or go shopping, but overshoots it when I’m on the bike. Garmin fixes the bike issue but doesn’t give me steps for mowing or shopping.

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

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

Over time, you’ll learn the idiosyncrasies for your particular fitness tracker—just like I did with my Fitbit. I knew that it was going to give me 10-20k more steps if I wore it on the bike, so I either didn’t wear it for that period (since I track my rides elsewhere) or I mentally adjusted. Now, on Garmin, I take my watch off and put it in my pocket when I mow (so it detects the movement) or track it as a walk. Either way, I get consistent results.

This allows me to compare my day-to-day easily. There was a bit of an adjustment period when I switched from Fitbit to Garmin, so if you do decide to switch brands, just know that they likely won’t track the same way. Don’t freak out because you’re suddenly 5k over or under your previous average—instead, just get used to the new tracker and adjust to the new baseline.

Easy peasy.

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Lisa is avid technical blogger. Along with writing a good articles, She has close interests in gadgets, mobile and follows them passionately.

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