Tales of a Fitbit Junkie: Is a Wearable Fitness Tracker The Motivator For You?

A few years ago, with a Fitbit Ultra (and then a Fitbit One) clipped to my jeans pocket, I watched the wearable fitness tracker explode. I was a fairly early adopter (back when it was reasonable to get REALLY excited after you saw someone else’s Fitbit Ultra clipped to their jeans because it was uncommon—like, because I’m a nerd, I wanted to start talking Fitbit with this dude beside me in my anatomy lab exam back in 2012, but he disappeared once we hit the allowed-to-talk zone outside the exam! Sir!). I’ve worn a Fitbit tracker almost every day for nearly five years—Fitbit tells me I joined on November 4, 2011, although I believe I set up my first tracker sometime in mid-January—and even have contributed my Fitbit data to research.

If you have exercise-inducedasthma, sometimes exercise can take a little bit of extra motivation, since you have to anticipate that you may not be breathing your best during or after the workout. I’ve written about fitness centres/gyms as well as tips for personal trainers before—but if you’re wanting to make an everyday sort of commitment to becoming more active, for $100-$200, you might think a wearable fitness tracker—like a Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin vivofit, or Misfit—device might be the push you need. This isn’t a post about what kind of tracker you should get, but instead about what research says about how that data might actually do for you.

My Fitbit Reality and the Facts on Fitness Tracking

Just like "a gym membership will not automatically generate fitness” (thank you, Jay), neither will a wearable. There is no long-term data about the success of these devices, and often, drop-off rates of use are high (people simply stop wearing the devices)1,2. The novelty, in my own experience, does wear off—and unless you are like me and will start some sort of quantified self project to get interested again (at least briefly), this might be the case for you.

Does data actually promote behavior change? The jury is still out—after all, these devices have really, really only caught on in the last two to three years in the general population, so it’s hard to gather “long term” data (the definition of which can vary greatly—Ernesto Ramirez, whom I contributed my Fitbit data to for his Ph.D. thesis, defined it as 3 months—this 2014 study’s minimum criteria was 3 months of use as well. A September 2016 reports that wearable use is not likely to assist in sustaining weight loss on its own3 and that people lost significantly more weight engaging in health counseling than they did wearing a self-tracking device3. I’d contribute that to the accountability to another person versus just a device. Of the participants of the 2014 study mentioned above, “some population of wearers continue to derive value and motivation from the technologies”4. So… even the data doesn’t yet have real data.

Here are almost three years of my Fitbit data.

Orange represents the month’s total steps—the purple is a daily count (thus the mountains and valleys).

This graph covers from January 2014 to November 23, 2016, so it doesn’t include that initial burst that I probably experienced when I first got a Fitbit in 2012 (I purposely excluded the ridiculous of 2013 where I’m sure severe downward swings would correlate with mounts I was significantly anemic with a handful of blood transfusions peppered in).

This is the proper everyday sort of logging—the two gaps/crashes you’ll see about 1/3 and just about halfway down the chart would be two of the instances where I lost my device, or it stopped working and I was waiting for a replacement—the first also coincides with December 2014 (my last Fall university exam period) and March 2014 (when I was buried in studying human anatomy for my exam in early April ;).). And, since data doesn’t lie, sometimes I legitimately barely move in a day because I work from home—the bottom of the right-hand vertical axis is 500 steps.

My drops are also mainly over winter, when a) Winnipeg gets freaking cold/icy, and b) when my asthma usually is worse.

The biggest consideration is that like a gym membership, a tracker does not automatically generate more exercise. As I constantly tell myself, in order for my Fitbit to help me be more active, I have to be aware of its passive tracking: I have to actually look at it and implement the data it is giving me into my life. And let's be honest, self-tracking fatigue exists. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love it, it just means that even us quantified selves get data burnout.

For me, I feel like sometimes my Fitbit helps me to be more active. Sometimes it doesn’t. If you’re needing an extra kick, maybe some friendly heckling from friends and family (which may die off, be warned) and/or you want to see how much you move, one of the devices out there might be for you. A good idea could be to try a free smartphone app (the Fitbit app does this for free)—if you get irritated by the fact that you keep missing chunks of data because your phone was left on a table or charging, or if you’re starting to pick up on trends and use the data for good, productive use, then it’s probably safe to say that investigating investing in one of these devices is a good choice for you.

Who should not wear fitness trackers?

Wearable devices may seem harmless enough. However, there are some populations that may be at risk of use of the devices. One study reports that many people felt as if wearing a Fitbit device was “controlling”, as they work to meet their daily goal at all costs, making the tracker an unrelenting “enemy”5. It may also be important for people with body image or eating disorders to not wear the devices6, as they can orient a person’s life around fitness, step count goals, calories, weight loss, and actually leave to an unhealthy preoccupation—if a host of factors are at play, including genetic predisposition to these sorts of behaviours, wearables might trigger onset or relapse of eating, exercise or other body image disorders6. Kids or adolescents may also be more susceptible to these factors: lifestyle practices should be built around fun and enjoyment for fitness, not calories in/calories out model that focuses on a rigid step count.

For the general adult population, fitness trackers can be an encouraging motivator but be mindful that they are not the right choice for everyone, and that is okay! A big part of health and fitness is what works for you, not other people!

The bottom line—or, lines.

Most fitness trackers will not do anything to assist you with your asthma itself, although some in the future may be able to integrate with different tracking systems. Fitbit has an area to log custom metrics, like peak flow, but I’ve never found it to be a useful part of my own journey. Another consideration is whether or not the tracker you want is compatible with the exercise you do—is the device waterproof and can you track swimming if you are a swimmer? Will it allow you to log workouts such as a stationary bike or elliptical afterward? (Note that these activities won’t earn you steps, but they still count!). Research your tracker and ask questions before buying!

If you’re looking for a little push to get more active, and you’ve read on the benefits of risks of these devices, and their actual merits, and you think it is a good choice for you then go for it—just remember: the work you put in is about you, not your device! (And for goodness sake, if you forget your tracker or are charging it, it’s not a reason to not take steps5yes they still “count”, even if your device doesn’t count them your body does!

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