Does Having a FitBit Make You Healthier?

Data will save us all! The combination of data and immediate feedback has the power to change our habits, saving us from inactivity! Data! Feedback! Monitor your biostats!

I’ve had a FitBit for a month now and have been thinking about how my mindset and lifestyle have changed as a result of having these biostatistics at the ready.

I got my FitBit Charge HR with some of my dad’s airlines miles that were about to expire. This model is different from the original one in that there is a small display on the wrist-band, which shows the time and date as well as whatever statistics you’ve selected. The defaults are daily steps, current heart rate, miles, calories burned, and flights of stairs climbed.

While I was excited to be counting my daily steps as a barometer for daily activity, I was apprehensive about having my calories burned so readily displayed on my wrist. While I don’t have a history of eating disorders or severe body-image issues, I do know that I have some compulsive tendencies and that having such a loaded statistic so present in the forefront of my mind could easily lead to some unhealthy behavior with regards to restrictive eating or excessive exercise. I disabled that statistic from the wristband display and tried to adjust the settings so that the calorie counter wouldn’t be prominently displayed in the app on my phone.

The part of me that’s a conspiracy theorist (or just conscious citizen of the digital age) is concerned about where this data is going. Is FitBit selling the data and profile stats to insurance companies to get more information about people who fit my description? Are they selling it to advertisers (though I’m not sure what advertisers would do with it)? I’m obviously not concerned enough about this to have done significant research before I got this device, nor did I read the privacy information before clicking accept, but it is something that’s on my mind.

Since then, I’ve been focusing on steps. The recommended daily goal, which FitBit presumably adopted from the American Heart Association, is 10,000 steps. I assumed that I would be easily hitting this goal every day, since I think of myself as an active person who goes for frequent walks and moves around a lot in regular household activities.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. The past few months I’ve been living in my parent’s house while I apply for jobs after college. I spend most of the day alone and don’t necessarily leave the house (besides walking the dog) on any particular day. Despite this, I apparently had deluded myself that my steps to take out the garbage and see if anything new had appeared in the fridge would add up to 10,000. Instead, my daily step count on a weekday hovers around 6,500 and this includes a nightly walk around the block (1 mile).

Weekends are much more active, which is something I think I already knew. I spend Saturdsays and Sundays running errands with my parents and getting in and out of the car and walking around grocery stores adds a lot more steps than you might think. Couple this with an additional walk around the block and I easily hit 10,000 on the weekends, often by mid-afternoon.

The heart-rate monitor has also been interesting to see in action. When I was a freshman in college, I spent a lot of time at the gym, sometimes swimming but often on an elliptical (hey, I didn’t have friends and hated my classes – it was a way to kill time and get out stress). Ellipticals often have heart-rate monitors on the handbars, though of dubious accuracy. The little pictograph on the machine advised getting your heart rate above at least 145bpm to be getting a real cardio workout. I’m sure this goal was based on science, though my heart rate seemed to be 100 bpm or 170bpm with no in between. Now, with my FitBit pressed against my wrist, I can check my heartrate any time. Right now for example it’s 82bpm (obviously low as I am sitting here typing). Most of the time my heartrate is correlated with my level of activity as it should be, but sometimes it is very high relative to what I’m doing. I was showing my uncle the heart rate monitor component while sitting next to him at a post-graduation lunch. It said that my heart was beating 117 bpm. My uncle remarked on how high this was, and I could not tell if this was a defect or if anxiety and stress was really elevating my heart rate that much (for reference, a resting heart rate is typically between 60 and 100 bpm). Perhaps I really am that stressed out and am reluctant to recognize this indicator for what it is.

Around the same time I got the FitBit I also started training in Krav Maga. I was interested to see if the FitBit would incorrectly register my punches as steps. However, the classes are loud and intense and require a lot of focus so I haven’t yet done a lot of testing about whether it is actually making that error. I do know that I get a lot of steps in during that hour long class, and since I’m using steps as a barometer for overall activity I’m happy with that.

I wish I could say that I’ve been using this bioinformation to change my lifestyle and incorporate more activity into my daily life. A bad virus recently knocked me out of commission for a week plus and I’d like to use that as an excuse but I know that even before this illness I was just as sedentary as I was with any other level of information. If I know that I’m close to 10,000 to steps, say it’s 7pm and I’m at 8,500, then I will make the effort to get out for another walk (or play basketball in my driveway or just pace around the house). But if it’s been a low-activity day and I’m still around 5,000 or 6,000 steps I won’t make the effort that evening, nor have I been approaching the next day with the intent to beat the previous day’s stats. This is of course on my long list of ~self-improvement~ goals but we’ll see if I find it meaningful.

I definitely fall into the trap of thinking that one device or app is going to radically better the way I’m living my life, whether it’s a planner at Staples or an iPhone or the to-do list app that I’m currently searching for. The data is not what’s important, it’s what you do with it. As a rational person would expect, the FitBit did not significantly change my lifestyle. This is on me, the data didn’t change my life because I didn’t do anything with the data. I do feel that I now know important information that can guide me in making those lifestyle changes when I’m ready, easily displayed on my wrist.

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