In the past week I’ve seen two articles citing to the same study that basically says – you don’t need a fitbit (or other wearable activity tracker); your phone can do the same job just as well; and you aren’t going to get healthier just by wearing a device. Both the articles had really aggressive headlines : “Science Says FitBit Is a Joke” (Mother Jones) and “Your FitBit Is Bullshit, Says Science” (Jezebel, citing the Mother Jones piece). And I just have to wonder, why are these folks so mad about everyone’s fitness devices?
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, actually says nothing about wearable activity trackers being inaccurate. Some of the devices they used were more inaccurate than the smartphone apps they used and some were way more accurate, but the study’s publication does not specify which devices had the best results and which the worst. The conclusion really is, your phone may do the trick for you and may save you money if you don’t want to spend $50-$200 on a wearable device. This is good news for some people.
I use a little FitBit Zip because I rarely have pockets at work so carrying my phone all the time just wouldn’t cut it for tracking my steps. Katie has the Garmin VivoFit which she wears on her wrist. The Mother Jones piece points out that for heavy exercisers, the current activity trackers don’t do it it all – I know Katie ends up wearing both her VivoFit and her regular running Garmin out on runs – but I think that 1. in a short time, there will be one watch for everything for those who want it, and 2. that watch will probably cost a lot so it’s a good thing there is a cheaper, less complex alternative for folks who want to know their daily millage but don’t care about being about to also track their running pace and laps in the pool all on one device.
The conclusion that wearable activity trackers are BS, seems to be a totally unwarranted jump from the study’s actual findings to the response that the authors of these pieces want to give to their annoying fitness obsessed friends. I understand if you want to to tell your friend to shut the hell up about their step count for the day, or if you want to throw their phones on the ground when they keep showing you the graphs of calorie consumption for the past three months. But that doesn’t make their devices BS.
Mother Jones quotes Mitesh Patel, one of the study’s authors: “”While smartphones and wearable devices can help track health behaviors, they may not alone drive behavior change,” says Patel. The key, he says, is to figure out how to engage individuals so they use technology to lead them to changing unhealthy behavior, especially those that most in need of making the change.” The question that there seems not to be data for at this point, is: are these devises actually changing people’s behavior?
I know in my personal experience, the answer is yes and no. I have a friend who told me his FitBit has been sitting at the bottom of his book bag for months and was surprised to find out it was still working in there randomly tracking his steps whenever he walked around wearing his bag. So for him, maybe not. Then there are people like me and my boyfriend who immediately started using the competition features on the FitBit app to see who could get more steps in a week. My boyfriend is not a lover of walking, but when we’re competing, he’ll leave the house and take extra walks just to try and beat me. I’m more likely to take a walk at lunch or walk home from the farther train station to get my steps in. So for us, it’s doing its job.
I don’t know if there is a bit of technology that can get people who hate exercise to start loving exercise, but I think if a device or an app helps those of us who want to get out and be active do it in a way we enjoy, then that’s not BS.