Fitbit: Friend, Frenemy, or Foe?

Fitbit Inc.'s Fitbit Flex wireless activity and sleep wristband sit on display at the Wearable Expo in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. The world largest expo for wearable devices and technologies will be held through Jan.16. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As a DPT student with progressively worsening posture and aerobic capacity, the Fitbit Flex was one of my favorite 2015 Christmas gifts. Though I was always aware I could use more exercise, the lack of activity I was performing as a result of my graduate school-induced sedentary lifestyle was appalling to me once it was quantified right on my wrist and iPhone app. Within a week of wearing my tracker, I set out with a drive to do whatever it would take to consistently meet my step count, active minute, mile, and calorie burn goals.

It didn’t take very long for me to become obsessed, constantly refreshing the app, becoming less efficient in doing everything just to get more steps in, or to then bite the bullet and begin incorporating some jogging into my life. It also didn’t take very long before I gave myself an ankle injury, suspected to be caused by overuse of wonky mechanics, as I refused to let the slowly growing pain prevent me from reaching my step goals for as long as possible. I had seen (and ignored) headlines suggesting Fitbits weren’t actually the greatest fitness phenomenon, but I didn’t even want to consider blaming my Flex for any wrongdoing, at least not until after the pain, swelling, and antalgic gait from my ankle became too annoying to push through.

As much as I wanted to avoid the question, I began to wonder if my Fitbit was partially to blame. At CSM, I brought the idea up to a few other students, and even briefly mentioned it to some of the faculty in my program.

Let’s first discuss some of the benefits of wearable trackers, the reasons why I initially almost felt personally offended by Fitbit bashing.

+They promote awareness of activity and exercise habits; for those like me, seeing the actual number of steps (or lack thereof) can be motivating

+They may also promote adherence to fitness goals; participating in challenges with friends or co-workers and having that competitive edge might increase the likelihood that someone will exercise consistently

+They’re stylish, making them appeal to more people; we do live in a culture where trends are valued, whether we like it or not

+They track more than just steps, (some components are dependent on the model you have,) including such things as sleep, HR, exercise intensity, flights climbed, etc; this suggests they provide increased awareness of overall health-related habits

Now, if you do a Google news search for “Fitbit,” several things will happen.

You’ll see a billion articles about one unique situation in which a man was somehow able to discover his wife was pregnant because of the HR tracking feature of her Fitbit.

You’ll also see a billion and one articles about Fitbit’s stock decline, and a lot of headlines asking if “FitBit is dead.”

You’ll see a bunch talking about the new models of Fitbit, Blaze and Alta, which are supposedly designed to be even more stylish for those who want their tracker to look as much like another piece of jewelry as possible.

And then, you will see a high volume of articles with a similar theme, which can probably be summed up as: “Fitbit is bad for you.”

So, let’s talk cons. From reading many of these articles and reflecting on conversations I’ve had with many people about the issue, there are a lot of factors to consider here.

It is easy to become obsessed with your Fitbit. This would be where my story fits in.

They are never going to be perfectly accurate. There have actually been lawsuits on this, both over the inaccuracy of step-counts and HR tracking. In my personal opinion, you don’t need any device other than the second hand on a clock or watch and your very own fingers to get an accurate HR, but of course we are a generation that thirsts for continuous feedback.
-Anyway, in terms of step-count accuracy, this can go one of two ways:

  1. Activity is overestimated – this is a potential problem because many people, especially those that are more difficult to motivate in terms of exercise, may believe they have done more than they actually have, ultimately resulting in less participation in activity and almost defeating the purpose of using the Fitbit to improve personal fitness, (though it should be acknowledged this is not what all consumers use it for.)
  2. Activity is underestimated – this may result in overdoing it, again, relating back to my personal anecdote. Here we have the potential for overuse injuries, excessive exercising, maybe even body perception disorders in extreme cases.

They might take the enjoyment out of participation in activities – this was a surprising one to me, but a very common point discussed in multiple articles. The competitive nature of challenges and feeling the need to earn bragging rights about your step count has caused many Fitbit users to resent their trackers. This is bad news for us in the PT world, especially during a time when promoting physical activity is so important for the general population. Further, I even read an article that discussed the detrimental effect Fitbit trackers can have on mental health in children and adolescents, because they are another potential source for bullying.

There are claims that the format of goal achievement creates the wrong kind of habits – the direct quote I am thinking of is: “like the variable reinforcement schedule that makes gambling so powerful.” (Berkeley Science Review: How Fit is That Fitbit?) These claims suggest that the focus on outcomes, rather than the activity one performs, is the wrong kind of measure for success.

These are all of course valid caveats that even a super-fan of Fitbit like myself cannot deny, and have given me mixed feelings about the phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong, I still religiously wear my Flex but have toned down my obsession with exceeding all my daily goals, (which may cause those opposed to trackers to question what benefit there is from continuing to wear it.)

 

If you’ve made it this far, you might be asking yourself why you have read all about my little anecdote, and who is this girl anyway? Why should you care and what does this mean for the profession?

As current or soon to be professionals during a time when obesity, heart disease, and other such preventable or at least manageable health issues are so alarmingly prevalent, staying on top of the fitness trends that pop up is arguably as important as keeping up with PT research. At face value, the Fitbit seems like a simple tool to help the average person become aware of their activity level and hopefully then seek opportunities to improve their exercise habits. Granted I did not pull any of my points in this piece from “reliable” sources, they are still reasonable perspectives to consider when deciding whether or not you support the use of Fitbit or other wearable trackers, especially if the conversation comes up with your patients.

So maybe you believe the Fitbit phenomenon is like the next Crossfit-type issue (where there’s generally a vast abyss separating those on either side of the argument), or maybe you think it’s whatever yo, NBD. Regardless of your side of the coin, I at least hope the message is clear that our profession can have an important role as a resource for education on these fitness trends, AND that these trends can play a role in our profession. Whether it’s a positive or negative one is up to us to decide.

 

 

Articles and media consulted for this post:

Delgado M. How fit is that Fitbit? Berkeley Science Review. Published October 7, 2014. http://berkeleysciencereview.com/fit-fitbit/

Posey M. Could your Fitbit be hurting more than helping? Hawaii News Now Web site. Published March 7, 2016. Updated March 15, 2016. http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/31408473/could-your-fitbit-be-hurting-more-than-helping

Goldstein LA. Believe it or not, using your Fitbit can become unhealthy. Sheknows. Published February 16, 2016. http://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/1109199/when-owning-a-fitbit-becomes-unhealthy

Petrow S. Why that Fitbit might not be so good for you. USA Today. Published January 18, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/01/14/why-fitbit-might-not-so-good-you/78789446/

Dee A. Apple watch, Fitbit can make exercise less fun. Youth Health. Published February 29, 2016. http://www.youthhealthmag.com/articles/40659/20160229/apple-watch-fitbit-make-exercise-less-fun.htm

Burris E. Does wearable technology help or hurt your child? ABC 7 Web site. Published March 2, 2016. Updated March 10, 2016. http://www.abc-7.com/story/31370803/does-wearable-technology-help-or-hurt-your-child

Hillsman J. Good News! You’re likely burning more calories than you thought when you’re walking. EurekaAlert! Published March 15, 2016. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/smu-gny031516.php

Sawh M. FitBit: Building for a stylish fitness tracking future. Wareable. Published March 14, 2016. https://www.wareable.com/fitbit/fitbit-designs-on-building-a-stylish-fitness-tracking-future-2016

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