Unless you’ve been hybernating in France’s Niauxin Caves or just off a five-year sabbatical with Buddhist monks in Ladakh India, it would be surprising if you haven’t heard of — let alone own — a Fitbit band. Those $50-ish to $100-ish wristbands are clasped to wrists everywhere, measuring steps throughout the day like a high-tech pedometer and displaying progress as a graph on smartphones.
These gadgets not only count steps, most also measure sleep, revealing fascinating details about the one-third of your life that you spend unconscious. Fancier models also track heart rate, blood oxygen level, skin temperature, perspiration, body weight and body mass.
It’s information unlocked so we can gauge what until now, only doctors could measure. We gain knowledge about the inner workings of our own bodies — by monitoring measurements with every step and breath we take. Daily and hourly. Not just at once-yearly physicals. Supposedly, and sometimes to the point of obsession, it would appear that millions of people are making a greater effort to get healthy and fit — who could argue with that?
Well, there are a couple of obvious problems with the mad rush to quantify ourselves. First, we’re almost certainly ascribing more precision to these devices than they deserve. If you wear three brands of fitness band, you’ll rack up three different step counts by the end of each day. And don’t get sleep scientists started on the accuracy of those sleep graphs; according to researchers, it’s brain waves, not wrist movement, that indicate what stage of sleep you’re in.
But the naysayers’ cautions really don’t matter. These devices are succeeding not because of their scientific qualities but because of their motivational ones. We all know we should move more and sleep better — but most of us just don’t bother.
What the fitness bands do is keep these issues front-of-mind. You can’t ignore the latest stats on your progress available every time you turn on your phone: Most devices also show the results of friends who wear the same brand. You might call it fitness through humiliation.In other words, the accuracy really makes little difference. The point is to keep us aware, to gamify our efforts. In that way, these bands really work. You wind up parking farther away, getting off the bus a stop earlier, going for a walk down the block to bring your 9,374 daily step count up to your 10,000-step goal.
But according to a recent study conducted by Eric Finkelstein, a professor at Duke NUS Medical School in Singapore, “These are basically measuring devices. Knowing how active you are doesn’t translate into getting people to do more and the novelty of having this information wears off pretty quickly.”
Finkelstein and his colleagues who conducted the study concluded that although activity trackers may boost the number of steps people take, they probably aren’t enough to motivate them to drop pounds or improve overall health.
The other concern is less easily dismissed: the data. Bytes of personal health data, amassed daily in stunning quantities, is the world’s biggest health study — and nobody’s running it. Researchers would love to get their hands on that information. So would advertisers. Insurance companies would have a field day; they could offer active members lower rates than sedentary sloths. (Our rates are already higher if we’re smokers or drivers with bad records.)
Who owns all this data? Will the makers of the fitness bands sell personal information? Will it be anonymous and aggregated or associated with us by name? What if we want to contribute our data — to a doctor? To a research study? It’s the Wild West at the moment. We’re collecting mountains of personal health data and just shoving them into underground caverns. The real promise of the quantified-self movement may not be fulfilled until we determine how to find the gold in that that data — and who gets to do the mining.
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