Can A Fitness Tracker Really Change Your Life? Part One Of A First-Person Experiment

In 2013, fitness tracking is all around us: in iPhone apps like Map My Fitness and DailyBurn; built into your Samsung Galaxy S4 phone; in a device on your wrist if you own a Nike+ Sportswatch or a Pebble smartwatch. But does any of it really work? Not just do they track your fitness, but do they really help you change your life?

One might expect that these trackers primarily help the already motivated enough achieve their goals faster, leaving the rest of us drowning in useless data. Or can having that data really help the average Joe improve their health?

These issues are at the core of the quantified self movement, and I wanted to find out for my self. I want to know if, over the course of six weeks, having this data can help me substantially alter my behavior and become fitter. My goal is not to lose weight, specifically, but rather to shed my bad fitness habits and change myself for the better. 

Quantified Me

The Quantified Self concept sounds a lot more intense than it really is. The idea is simply that using wearable tech to collect detailed data about everything you do, eat and feel will reveal patterns and correlations that can help you improve your life. (Not everyone who engages in quantified self activities is looking to change themselves, of course; the people who attend quantified self meet-up groups apparently just like the idea of monitoring the body's daily data stream.)

As someone with no prior experience with wearable devices, I decided to jump headfirst into fitness tracking with the Fitbit Flex. It's a bracelet-like device meant to be never taken off save for the few hours it takes to charge it every week. It stays on your wrist when you sleep, when you shower and when you ride your bike. And it knows when you decide that you'd just rather grab a Big Mac than walk the four extra blocks to the coffee shop to get a salad. 

Why The Fitbit Flex?

The $100 Fitbit Flex is the latest offering from Fitbit, following a line of clip-on devices called the Fitbit Zip and the Fitbit One. Internet reviews have largely been positive, to the point where the device is on eight-to-ten-week back order. (Importantly, its excellent companion app is available for both Android and iOS.).  Alternatives include the Jawbone Up and the Nike FuelBand, both of which deliver similar functionality - sleep monitoring, pedometer features and daily/weekly data production using manual food and exercise inputs - for a few dollars more. 

That part about manual inputs is important. The Flex will automatically count your steps and monitor how you thrash around in your sleep, but you need to tell it how you exercise (how long and how vigorously you rode your bike or jogged, for instance) and what you consume. It has a database of calorie counts for foods spanning the McDonald's Dollar Menu to Panera Bread, but laboriously inputting numbers of ounces and other measurements for common items like fruit and orange juice quickly gets tedious - many users could getting frustrated and give up.

Fortunately, setting up the device is relatively easy. You start by plugging in the charging cable and slipping the tracker into it. Unfortunately, unlike the Nike FuelBand, you cannot plug the device directly into a USB port so the only option is the easy-to-misplace charger. The Flex charges in a couple of hours, giving you at least a week's worth of tracking. 

The next step is to slip the tracker into the bottom of the wristband, strap it on (which takes a bit of a struggle at first) and then you're good to go. You can sync via a USB dongle you keep plugged into your laptop, or via Bluetooth with the Fitbit smartphone app that lets you set alarms, monitor your day's activity and toggle on and off the background sync function. 

Learning To Ignore It

So far, the Fitbit Flex has been an innocuous addition to my everyday life. At first, it was hard not to ignore its presence on my wrist, and keep double-tapping it to see the flashing white dots that indicate the day's progress, like whether or not you've walked 5,000 steps or burned the designated number of daily calories. 

But after a few days, the device's sleek design and comfortable material helped me stop noticing it so much - except when I was going sleep. To get ready for bed, you need to tap it quickly five or six times to put it into sleep mode. It then vibrates to wake you up in the morning, a vast improvement on the jolting iPhone siren I had been using.  

Now that it's become more or less a seamless addition to my life, I'm fully ready to tackling the six-week challenge of habit breaking and behavior altering. 

My Weekly Goals 

My weekly in-app goals: 

  • Walk 7,500 steps every weekday / 10,000 on the weekends
  • Travel 4 miles every weekday / 8 miles on the weekend
  • Burn 2,200 - 2,350 calories every day (to maintain my weight)

Since my goal is not to lose weight, I set my calorie intake and burn rate to remain steady. Instead, I want to get in better shape and take a more conscious look at my eating habits. The ultimate goal is to improve my lifestyle habits, and figure out just how well a fitness tracker facilitates that.

So my pivotal, hard-to-reach goal for my first week is to burn more calories than I take in every single day. For me, that doesn't mean eating less. Instead, I want to maintain what has my 3-meals-a-day (occasionally 4-small-meals-a-day) routine while focusing on exercising and being more active.

Check back in in the coming weeks to follow my progress and track the results.