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Is Your Fitness Band about Fitness or Fad?

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Is Your Fitness Band about Fitness or Fad?

Over the past twelve months, there has been an explosion in the phenomenon of ‘Fitness Bands’, culminating in them becoming one of the fastest selling products over the recent Christmas period. Now, everyone seems to be wearing one of these innocuous bands, and using it to keep track of their overall state of health, fitness and well being. During a recent study, ABI research predicted that the revenue for wearable wireless devices will exceed $6 billion dollars, and more than 50% will be for fitness bands1.

However, there appear to be limitations involved in these devices, which are gradually becoming more and more apparent. Most of these problems stem from those hoping to use them to lose weight, and instead of helping the user, they misdirect the consumer and lead them along a path that can veer quite heavily from the one they were hoping to take.

There are quite a few brands – Fitbit, Jawbone and Garmin are some of the devices available.

During a recent study, ABI research predicted that the revenue for wearable wireless devices will exceed $6 billion dollars, and more than 50% will be for fitness bands1

They keep track of fitness ‘goals’ which the user then utilises to gauge their intake of food, while reminding them to keep track of how much they need to do to achieve their goals. They do so through various means. Generally, however, these devices track the amount of steps taken via a pedometer, by recording the act of movement in the arm of the person wearing them. Some of the more expensive devices are more complex – they record heart rate, through the band itself or through a separate monitor placed over the chest, recording the data and sending it to the band, which then sends it to a computer or smart phone.

They can also track distance travelled via GPS devices placed into the band, as well as other handy but relatively unimportant features, such as monitoring incoming phone calls, alarms and time, as well as monitoring the quality of your sleep – generally by the amount of moving around that takes place during rest. When a daily goal is met by the device, it will alert the user via a buzz or sound, and not knowing when that buzz is coming is what is known as a variable reinforcement schedule, much like in gambling – the anticipation of the achievement enough to drive the user on, in order to get the euphoric sense of satisfaction. But does meeting that goal truly denote an achievement? Or is it simply self-satisfaction, a purely psychological effect rather than the physical one desired? Studies into gambling driven behaviour lean towards the latter.2

Problems with Goals and Allowed Intake

Fitness bands are based off what is really quite sound science, namely around keeping track of your daily routine to give an individual a better idea of what it is that they are actually doing, based on that knowledge, that individual is then able to better gauge their daily intake of calories. An article in 2008 showed that using a pedometer really does motivate an individual to be more active, walking significantly greater distances and increasing their overall amount of exercise as well3. Likewise, keeping a food diary, working in conjunction with the data kept from the fitness band, can make controlling ones weight and lowering it an easier matter to take care of. However, there are still problems implicit with this information, particularly if the one reading it does not fully understand the communicated information.

The data gathered from the fitness band is simple and also, eventually, tends to become mind numbing. It is simplified and without nuance, and eventually, there is so much of it that the focus becomes less and less placed upon the individuals own sense of well being, and more in line with what the numbers tell them.

As such, it is thought that the device is better used to assist reaching a set concrete goal of personal health – not to follow the individual day to day results, but to give a better reading of reaching an actual target, assisting in reaching that target rather than simply maintaining a status quo4.

In addition to this, there are problems involved in the amount of calorie intake that reaching such goals allow for. The devices, based on the amount of effort taken, give an allowance for the amount of food consumed as a result, based on effort expended. However, it is based purely off that simple information – it does not consider previous eating habits, before the band was in fact being used, and whether the food allowance it recommends is in fact less or more than it was before. In fact, it may not be accurate at all, based on the simple realisation that the metabolism of an individual is extremely varied from one person to the next.

Metabolism differences between individuals

It is a simple fact that each person has a different metabolic rate, which can be influenced by a huge variety of factors, such as habits, genetics, stress and well being levels, even gender and age. People burn energy at different rates, at different levels of activity, and make use of different types of food as well in that process. Hence why there are so very, very many different kinds of fitness, food and health routines and solutions available on the market today – the industry of weight loss is enormous, a multi-billion dollar market, and there are so many variations based simply on the fact that while there are many factors that remain the same across the board, there are measures to be taken that will be far more effective for one person than they will be for the other.

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Fitbit devices can adjust their algorithm for the metabolism of the user. However, it still does not take into account some of the more crucial elements of understanding a metabolism.

Fitbit devices can adjust their algorithm for the metabolism of the user. However, it still does not take into account some of the more crucial elements of understanding a metabolism. Different kinds of food, for example, are metabolised at different rates and at different levels of fuel efficiency in the individual. A fitness band can only take into account the amount of calories, but it does not indicate the sheer variation in which that individual might metabolise those calories to make use of them, or to turn them into fat cells. This leads to an erroneous level of understanding as the person may believe that by reaching a goal that the fitness band has set, they can simply eat whatever they like as long as it fits within the parameters of their allowed intake.

All of this leads to another inherent problem that is often talked about with fitness bands – the problem that they have with accuracy.

How Accurate are They?

Studies performed on the accuracy of the Fitbit devices found some problems with the accuracy of the devices.5 While generally, they were found in certain circumstances to be within an acceptable level of accuracy, there were inherent problems overall, which could lead to false perceptions of goal achievement. In truth, this inaccuracy did occur on both sides of the spectrum – both incorrectly recording when the user did too much, or too little. There were also problems found with speed and distance, with the accuracy becoming worse the faster the individual was travelling. According to The Fitbit in particular was found to underestimate energy expended during brisk walking, but was more accurate at slower speeds. The end result of the study was, quite simply, that while a Fitbit device is good for counting steps to an acceptable margin, it needs some help in measuring distance, mainly in getting an accurate reading of stride distance for an individual. However, crucially, it was found to be not very reliable for counting calories burned, and this is where the problem of weight gain due to erroneous calorie counting comes into play most heavily5.

This is the crucial problem with the fitness bands overall. If the maths of calorie intake is inaccurate compared to the amount of calories burned, then the science of using the devices is flawed, and as a result, people using the devices get a potentially harmful understanding of what they have achieved and what they are able to eat to offset that work done.

The Calorie Counting Fixation

The trouble with weight loss is that it is, in truth, more art than science. Each person has different dietary needs, different absorption of different foods, and can get more or less out of different forms of exercise.

This is the crucial problem with the fitness bands overall. If the maths of calorie intake is inaccurate compared to the amount of calories burned, then the science of using the devices is flawed, and as a result, people using the devices get a potentially harmful understanding of what they have achieved and what they are able to eat to offset that work done.

But fitness bands, with their drive towards counting simple calorie intake and calories burned, over simplify the process until it potentially misses the more personal details required for an individual to properly lose weight, and to achieve satisfactory fitness. Calorie counting has been shown not to work in the past – typical thought is that losing weight is a simple matter of burning more calories than we eat. Unfortunately, as has already been noted, this is not how it works. Hormonal production and stress levels can affect the metabolism heavily, and not all calories are the same – the body burns calories from either fats, carbohydrates, or proteins, which make up lean muscle6 . While the device might say that a person has in fact burned several hundred calories, it doesn’t say where those calories came from, be it either stored fat or carbohydrate breakdown, or worst of all, from proteins which make up lean muscle.

To avoid this, individuals need to balance their diet properly – controlling what it is they eat, how often, and what they then do to work with that diet, as well as managing their own stress.

So are they worth it?

When all is said and done, it is not all bad news. Overall, there are benefits to using Fitness bands – some features, it has been found, are more beneficial than others7. A combination of different actions when using the band tended to be far more beneficial to the user. Some of the actions include:

  • Setting individual goals with reminders to exercise specific to the individual rather than being generic.
  • Encouraging healthy habits relating to activities, diet, mental well being and motivation.
  • Understanding the limitations of the device being used the device is designed to assist the user to monitor their progress towards their goals.

Fitness bands have their limitations, it is true, but they are a helpful motivator as well. They are there to guide, to assist, and to help each person reach their goals. Things get problematic when an individual relies too heavily upon the band.

With obesity levels on the rise8, these devices and their assistance to measure against goals is encouraged. However, they need to be viewed not as a solution but as a motivation towards the end result In truth, the psychological aspect of motivation is probably the most important aspect of the device, pushing an individual to do more. In that respect, they achieve their goal, and can help push a person just a bit harder.

 

1 https://www.abiresearch.com/press/led-by-the-sports-fitness-and-wellness-segment-wea/
2 http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/schedules.htm
3 http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/counting-every-step-you-take
4 http://www.nbcnews.com/health/diet-fitness/healthy-or-tmi-what-do-you-do-all-fitness-data-n11806
5 http://berkeleysciencereview.com/fit-fitbit/
6 http://www.cbn.com/health/nutrition/drlen_countcalories.aspx
7 http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6240359&tag=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fxpls%2Fabs_all.jsp%3Farnumber%3D6240359%26tag%3D1)
8 http://www.aihw.gov.au/overweight-and-obesity/