Fitness Trackers: Do They Help You Go That Extra Mile?

Some say the accountability factor of Fitbits (and similar wearable products) can be a motivator.


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Illustration by Vlad Alvarez

When EB Neiner’s father passed away from cancer last September, she did what many people do in times of grief: She turned to food. “I never used food for comfort but now I can’t stop,” says Neiner in frustration, having gained 20 unwanted pounds on her 5-foot-6 frame.

Neiner, a 38-year-old Bellefonte resident, is extremely active in her daily life. Her job at FedEx doing quality assurance keeps her on her feet and moving for most of her shift. But she wanted to move even more, and needed the motivation to do so. 

She asked her mom for a Fitbit, a cutting-edge pedometer that also tracks things like distance, calories burned, floors climbed, active minutes and hourly and stationary time.

For Christmas, her mom bought her the Fitbit Charge HR, a bright, rubbery band worn around the wrist that syncs and stores all of her data with an app on her cellphone. After having it for only a few months, Neiner was hooked. During a typical shift at work, she will easily clock 10,000 steps, the number of steps recommended for weight management, made very popular with the rise of activity trackers. On her days off or if she’s working part-time, her Fitbit alerts her to her lack of activity. “It’s amazing. It keeps you accountable,” she says. 

But is it the accountability factor that is motivating more people with fitness trackers to exercise? Gregory Dominick, an assistant professor for Behavioral Health and Nutrition at the University of Delaware, seems to think it is, for some. A few years ago, Dominick began teaching an undergraduate class on physical activity behavior where he required his students to wear a Fitbit as a way to self-monitor their activity. “I had an overwhelming response from students. Some thought they were much more active [before they started tracking],” says Dominick. 

Soon after founders James Park and Eric Friedman launched Fitbit in 2009, a whole slew of other companies jumped into the digital fitness tracking pool. Nike, Garmin and Apple, for example, sell comparable versions that vary slightly in features offered, style and price. Wearable technology has been identified as the top fitness trend for 2016, according to a survey by the American College of Sports Medicine, and Dominick states that 20 percent of adults in the United States use some sort of tech device to track their health.

What makes the Fitbit and other fitness trackers popular, according to Dominick, are their reasonable behavior change techniques. These methods include things like setting goals, self-monitoring and positive reinforcement. For example, those with Fitbits earn badges when they reach certain fitness milestones. Fitbit also notifies you when you are close to your step goal, gently nudging you to keep moving. The Polar Loop provides motivating feedback right after a workout.

But there has been some recent criticism surrounding fitness trackers and their accuracy. Researchers at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona filed a class action lawsuit against Fitbit this year, claiming the heart rate monitor was “highly inaccurate.” But Dominick believes that these devices do provide relatively accurate information, such as step counts. “Trackers are accelerometers, which measure acceleration forces, so there will be some discrepancy between slow and fast walking,” he says.

Dominick says that fitness trackers all use slightly different algorithms to translate the raw data into actual statistics, which is why your step count or mileage may vary if you wore both a Fitbit and one of its competitors, like a Jawbone, simultaneously on your wrist.

But Dominick asserts that accuracy is not the be all end all when it comes to fitness trackers. “If it gets somebody to become more active—even if it’s not counting your steps 100 percent—it’s still a good thing.”

Friendly competition

For some, earning a badge or being reminded that they still have 2,000 steps left in order to reach their goal is not motivation enough. Neiner says she enjoys participating in the challenges with her sister or her cousin, who also have Fitbits, where they can compete for steps on a daily or weekly basis. 

Local organizations are taking advantage of the friendly competition brought on by fitness trackers. This past spring, 547 University of Delaware faculty and staff members tracked their physical activity as part of the Spring Into Motion physical activity campaign. Spring Into Motion challenges individuals to earn at least 6,000 steps or 30 minutes of activity daily. Steps can be tracked online using a Fitbit device. The program ended on May 1, and everyone who participated walked a total of 65,550 miles.

Motivate the First State, a campaign developed last year in collaboration with the Governor’s Council on Health Promotion and Disease prevention, helps Delaware residents turn their activities into charitable contributions. Motivate the First State was launched June 1, 2015 and leverages friendly competition and social connectivity to encourage people to be more healthy and active. Activities earn participants points, called kudos, which then moves money into three Delaware-based nonprofits: YMCA of Delaware, Boys & Girls Club of Delaware and Special Olympics. 

Neiner wants to start competing for steps with her boyfriend, but wants him to get on the fitness bandwagon for himself. “We are very competitive already, so I would want the steps to become a competition—I think it would entice him to be more active,” she says.

But even more than the accountability, Neiner loves the sense of accomplishment her Fitbit gives her. “It’s a satisfying thing to check when you’re bored—you can check your phone or scroll through Facebook, but my Fitbit tells me what I’ve done.”  

Do you own a fitness tracker? We would love to hear if you think it has motivated you to go that extra mile. Send your comments to editorial@delawaretoday.com.

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