The Fitbit, and fitness trackers like it, have taken the world by storm for the past few years. While companies continue to introduce new versions of popular trackers, and “10,000 steps a day” becomes a more common mantra among people, it’s important to look into the effects of wearing trackers. Are they really making people healthier? Are they motivating users to be more fit? This blog post will evaluate the positive and negative impact of the Fitbit on people’s behavior, and the overall effect that fitness trackers can have on society.
Let’s start with some positive effects. Research has shown that the Fitbit can increase a user’s physical activity. Wang, Cadmus-Bertram, Natarajan, et. al. (2015) studied 67 overweight and obese adults over the course of 6 weeks. Those who wore a Fitbit had an increase in moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity. Compared to daily text reminders to work out, wearing a Fitbit was significantly more effective in getting users to be more active.
Research into the Fitbit and communication has also found interesting connections. Kreitzberg, Dailey, Vogt, et. al. (2016) looked at how users “communicate from their fitness trackers” and the overall behavioral effects because of it. The research found that the way people talk about their health and fitness journeys has changed, at least partly due to how fitness trackers communicate. In the past, people were much more secretive about their health and fitness. Kreitzberg, Dailey, Vogt, et. al. argues that “the social features of fitness devices, such as data visualization, leaderboards, and sharing functionalities, make health messages easier to communicate” (2016, pg. 99). As discussed in previous blog posts, the Fitbit and other fitness trackers have apps that allow users to see and visualize their progress. The Fitbit takes this social communication farther by providing badges for hitting goals, and facilitating competition among its users in the form of steps and activity-based challenges. The study went on to find that “[p]articipants wearing fitness trackers discussed how the communication surrounding the devices prompted competition, goal completion, and motivation” (Kreitzberg, Dailey, Vogt, et. al., 2016, pg. 99). Therefore, we can see that fitness trackers, especially the Fitbit provide users with the motivation they need in order to reach their health and fitness goals. Overall, the Fitbit could be viewed as having positive effects on users by providing motivation as well as a platform to discuss fitness goals and progress with others.
Although there seem to be significant positive effects of fitness trackers, there are also some criticisms of devices like the Fitbit. A main argument is that fitness trackers don’t necessarily change an individual’s behavior: in other words, they tell users to work out but don’t inspire users to actually want to be fit. As Eric Finkelstein and the author of “Why Fitness Trackers Aren’t Making Us Healthier” state, “‘There’s confusion among people about a measurement tool and an intervention’…A scale counts pounds, for example, but won’t teach you how to eat less” (2016, pg. 20). Therefore, a possible negative effect of fitness trackers is that they tell you what to do (be fit) but not why to do it or how to maintain it. We can see this in the multiple examples of Fitbit users who “cheat” to win competitions. If users don’t understand why taking 10,000+ steps a day is important, they may find ways to avoid it. This lack of health/fitness understanding is also discussed in “Fitter, dumber, more productive.” Poole (2016) explains that health technology such as fitness trackers are disinhibiting users from actually understanding why they should work out. As he states, “why do we need machines to motivate us?” (Poole, 2016, pg. 37).
Moreover, accuracy is a huge area of conflict among fitness trackers. Fitbit was sued for accuracy issues this year when a study found that its heart rate monitor was about 20bpm off (Eadicicco, 2016). Although Fitbit denies these claims, it’s important for us to take a look at the effects of inaccuracy in fitness trackers (because the Fitbit isn’t the only wearable with possible issues). What are the consequences of a tracker that doesn’t measure properly? Let’s take the Charge Hr and use that as an example: this Fitbit counts steps, calories burned, and miles walked. If I buy a Charge Hr with the intention of using it to facilitate weight loss, I will be looking mostly at the calories burned. To lose weight I need to be in a caloric deficit and must eat and exercise accordingly. If I input my information into the Fitbit app, it will tell me how many daily calories I should burn in order to lose weight. But if my Fitbit is inaccurate, it may tell me that I’m burning more calories than I actually am. Therefore, I may not be in a deficit, and may not lose weight but actually gain. If a user is basing their calorie intake in relation to their Fitbit data, they may not be making any actual progress. In addition, an inaccurate Fitbit could harm those with heart problems. If the Fitbit is saying that a user’s heart rate is lower than it actually is, individuals may not be aware that they are overexerting themselves, which may lead to injury.
Aside from the more “scholarly” effects, there are also some unexpected positive and negative effects of using fitness trackers.
Users have found that the heart rate tracker on the Fitbit can help them monitor their overall health. Individuals have used the heart rate function to prepare themselves for colds and other illnesses (due to unusual heart rate increases). In addition, the Fitbit has been helpful for users with sleep issues as well.
As previously stated, using fitness trackers may also lead to negative effects for those with a history of disordered eating. The constant numerical data could be overwhelming for individuals. In addition, many users have foun
d that wearing trackers can cause a rash (either due to the tightness of the band, or from not cleaning the tracker properly).
As a Fitbit user, I understands both sides of this argument. I personally use my Fitbit as a supplement to my fitness routine. Even without this tracker I would be consciously active, counting calories, and monitoring my sleep. For me, the Fitbit allows me to see where I am in terms of steps, calories burned, etc. at any time. It also allows me to maximize my time working out to more efficiently reach my fitness goals. I was motivated before I got the Fitbit, but I understand that the technology can absolutely help individuals who may need more motivation to get up and move. I also personally love getting badges because it allows me to see how much progress I’ve made over time.
I also understand some of the negative effects of wearing a Fitbit. Although I don’t find the 10,000 daily step goal to ever be a problem (UConn makes sure I’m always walking around to get to class), I can see where users may be demotivated to keep wearing a Fitbit if they’re not hitting their steps. I also had an issue with Fitbit rash for a while, which was very frustrating!
Overall, I think that the Fitbit can be very beneficial as a supplement to a user’s fitness routine. I don’t believe fitness trackers should be purchased as an “Intervention” as Finkelstein (2016) states, but as a way for users to stay aware of how their body is changing and adapting over time. If we look at the societal effects of trackers and health, most research is still unclear. Because Fitbit has been around for less than a decade, it’s still very difficult to see a relationship between tracker use and societal health. As Delgado (2014) explains, the Fitbit is successful at allowing users to see short term goals. However, for real change to occur, we will need to wait a little longer to see how the Fitbit has impacted society as a whole. For now, I’m going to enjoy my Fitbit. I hope that others will use it (appropriately) as well!
Wang Julie B., Cadmus-Bertram Lisa A., Natarajan Loki, White Martha M., Madanat Hala, Nichols Jeanne F., Ayala Guadalupe X., and Pierce John P.. Telemedicine and e-Health. October 2015, 21(10): 782-792. doi:10.1089/tmj.2014.0176.
Oaklander, M. (2016). Why Fitness Trackers Aren’t Making Us Healthier. Time, 188(18), 19-20.
Poole, S. (2016). Fitter, dumber, more productive. New Statesman, 145(5328), 34-37.