With summer just around the corner, many are scrambling to eat as many pieces of chicken breast, heads of broccoli and making their way to the gym to get that perfect summer body! Along with these healthy lifestyle choices, in recent years, some of us have also begun turning to wearable technologies, applications, and trackers to assist in their fitness goals. Regarded as the Quantified Self movement, there are a plethora of benefits and pitfalls of these fitness trackers that are needed to be explored.
Dictionary.com defines Fitness Tracker as “a wearable electronic device or a software application that monitors one’s physical fitness and daily physical activity”. Fitbit, a popular brand of fitness trackers, claims on their website that their products can transform people’s lives by empowerment and encouragement to their meet fitness goals.
“To empower and inspire you to live a healthier, more active life. We design products and experiences that fit seamlessly into your life so you can achieve your health and fitness goals, whatever they may be.”
The three technologies used in Fitbit’s devices are purepulse, smarttrack and sleep tracking. To put in more simple terms, Fitbit’s signature devices and technologies include the ability to track heartbeat, exercise performance, and sleep cycles. For the everyday person, the technology is convenient and makes tracking his or her fitness process easy and digestible.
Why do people Love Fitness trackers?
I believe that the reason people have embraced this new technology so happily and quickly is that of the ability for Fitness trackers to demonstrate and project ideas of the bio-citizen.
Foucault’s theory of bio-citizenship is based on the individual’s ability to be a conscious and responsible for not only his or her own health and wellbeing but others as well.
Halse argued that “The concept of the bio-citizen is rooted in the Athenian politics of Ancient Greece whereby one’s private life and the well-being of the community were inextricably linked; consequently, private matters, such as individual health, became open for public consumption. Bio-citizenship signals a conscious contribution to community well-being. ‘The “good” citizen is therefore an “active” citizen, and active citizenship is the means by which one both commits to and becomes immersed in and part of the social world of a community’” (as cited in Szto and Gray 2014)
The Bio-citizen, therefore, is responsible for taking care of their own body, mind and the extended well-being of the community around them. To scrutinize, monitor and help develop the body of others are the responsibilities a bio-citizen must uphold. The idea to monitor oneself as well as others eating, exercise, and making the “right” lifestyle choices are of the utmost importance. Building upon this concept, the ideal Fitness tracking devices can encourage individuals to monitor themselves, hence making the act of being a bio-citizen easier and more approachable
The Panopticon or The Gaze
When we make decisions in public, we are constantly being watched and judged on whether or not we are making the right lifestyle decisions for our health and wellbeing. Imagine this scenario for instance. You are about to grab some lunch, and you have a choice to get either Coca-Cola, a Diet Coke, or a water for lunch. You probably are more inclined to order a water when you’re with a group of friends, but you may grab that cold Coca-Cola bottle when you are using a self-checkout machine. This is explained by the idea that the decisions you make speak volumes about the importance you place on your own health. In a society that places great emphasis on neoliberal ideas of the body as a continuous work in progress, it is no wonder we hear the endless new hot diet, fitness and lifestyle changes our friend and family live and die by.
The Quantified Self (QS) Movement
With an understanding of the bio-citizen and the panopticon, it is easy to understand why people are eager to monitor their health and make sense of it through data.
In a 2013 study by Swan, it was concluded that roughly 60% of American adults are tracking either weight diet or excursive routine, and 33% monitors blood sugar, blood pressure headaches, or sleep patterns (Millington 2014). These participants who conduct themselves in the action of self-tracking of biological, physical, behavior or environmental information are hence regarded as devotees of the Quantified Self Movement.
“apps of the health and fitness variety—a category of products that, broadly speaking, is about enhancing one’s lifestyle through activities such as dietary monitoring and exercise tracking. Self-tracking is certainly far from a newfound imperative, but it is particularly salient at present. This is first attributable to the growing ease of such activity” (Millington 2014).
I have to admit that I have fallen prey to the Quantified Self Movement myself. At the start of last year, like many others used the start of the new year as motivation and reason to eat healthily, work out and overall wanting to feel better. Before all of this, I told myself that I, of course, had to have new gym wear, calorie tracker on my phone and a brand-new Fitbit as my jumpstart! I believed that by having tangible quantifiable data would help motivate me in my journey to achieve my fitness goals. Alas, after a productive couple of weeks I quickly fell back into my old bad habits and abandoned these aspirations.
It is then important to ask and consider:
How does data from fitness trackers translate to fitness goals?
It is difficult to tell whether or not fitness trackers are successful in delivering on their mission of inspiring individuals to live a healthier and more active life. While some studies found the positive correlation of fitness tracking with weight loss over a short period of time, one study at the University of Pittsburgh, conducted over a long-term, concluded that “[d] evices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer standard behavioral weight loss approaches” (Jakicic et al. 2016). Another study examining the change in behavior with the use of activity trackers yielded similar results where activities and sleep trackings were seemingly influenced over a short period of time but behaviors in the long term still remain uncertain and require further study (Duncan 2017). In addition, a study at Duke University discovered that although motivation and individuals goal orientation were high in the short term, in the long-term these demands are difficult to continue, a decrease in goal attaining leads to lose in enjoyment as well as stress as an unintended consequence (Etkin 2016).
The reason why it is difficult to decisively conclude that if fitness trackers have any effect in helping an individual reach his/her fitness goals is because weight loss and personal fitness goals are complex and do not always fit into the scope of simple data such as steps taken or calories lost. I think it is important to keep in mind what your own fitness goals are and if they are on a realistic and achievable schedule. Therefore, before getting a fitness tracker, as Petrew (2016) suggested, we all need to consider both the positives and the negatives of it whether the tracker will help us stay on the right track or will bring us more stress and troubles. These studies are important to think about when we consider the validity and how we choose to use fitness trackers.
How Accurate are Fitness Trackers?
With fitness trackers of all shapes and sizes and claims to record and track a variety of data points, it is difficult to tell their accuracy and reliability. In one study carried out by a Stanford University, seven fitness tracking wristbands were tested and found to be accurate in measuring heart rate but abysmal in measuring energy expenditure accurately (Dusheck 2017). I believe that this is not a huge surprise given the complexities that come with calorie counting and energy expenditure. In regard to sleep tracking some studies have found that in a lab environment compared to commercial devices, results from fitness devices were reliable in a limited amount and that further improvements to its performance were needed to “avoid misleading the customer” (Gruwez et al. 2017). The problem with discrepancies in the fitness devices data to reality is that people turn to these devices make life decisions. It may be a minor decision such as having an extra doughnut or on the other end, insurance companies using fitness trackers to base health insurance on (Boyd 2017). With fitness trackers inaccuracy in mind, it is interesting to consider why people still fall prey to the QS movement.
I think it is important to understand the possible benefits and shortcomings that come with fitness trackers in regards to meeting fitness goals. Doing the research and understanding what fitness tracking technologies can offer to each person specifically will help determine if the product is catered towards you.
More recently, I started to notice a rising trend in privacy and surveillance concerns in regard to fitness trackers. First, in one incident, the GPS service on fitness tracking devices, provided by Strava, accidentally disclosed a U.S. military base in Niger when Strava released a global heat map of athletic activity (Turse 2018). This incident suggested and raised issues as to how the data of individual fitness trackers are being used or jeopardized as well. This led me down the rabbit hole exploring previous issues regarding privacy and fitness trackers. The related privacy concerns fall into two branches, firmware modification attacks and data integrity and privacy attacks (Fereidooni et al. 2017). As Zhou and Piramuthu (2014) suggested, we become vulnerable when our tracking data on our fitness trackers are exploited without our knowledge. As mentioned previously, insurance companies have started using fitness trackers to obtain insurance rates, fake health records regarding, heart rate, steps, calories and sleep stages can be jeopardized and altered in favor of hackers (Booton 2016). This is a major potential breach considering that people can obtain cheaper insurance rates and lower premiums. Another interesting case of Fitbit’s privacy concerns is how the court uses the tracker data as evidence. In a case in 2015, a man claiming her wife to have been murdered was found lying after police used fitness tracker data that revealed the wife to have a significantly more walking distance as well as actively walking an hour after her supposed murder (Reardon 2018). These are just some examples of how fitness trackers are potentially breaching users privacy by acting and functioning in ways other than many originally intend. It is critical that fitness tracker users are familiarized with these cases so they know what their devices are capable of.
Fitness trackers are easily dismissed as a simple convenience that helps us along our fitness journeys. It is, however, always important to step back, question and examine what exactly these products do and what we are giving up in return. I have always looked at new technology products as a trade-off between convenience and privacy. It is up to you to decide whether or not you are willing to give up privacy for the convenience and the offers of new technology. In regard to fitness tracking devices, it is important to know yourself and what these devices do and don’t do. If you are an active individual that loves to exercise and compete with personal bests, a fitness tracker may help track your progress. If you are finding yourself to be unmotivated or stressed about meeting certain goals day after day, it may be safe to say a fitness tracker is not right for you. Fitness trackers have been painted to be a fitness and lifestyle essential but there are plenty of pitfalls and compromises that come with the datafication of our bodies.
Booton, J. (2017, October 11). Fitness Trackers Could Pose Threat To Personal Data. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://www.sporttechie.com/fitness-trackers-fitbit-could-pose-threat-personal-data/
Boyd, A. (2017, February 23). Could your Fitbit data raise the cost of your health insurance? Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/could-your-fitbit-data-raise-the-cost-of-your-health-insurance-2017-02-23
Duncan, M., Murawski, B., Short, C. E., Rebar, A. L., Schoeppe, S., Alley, S., . . . Kirwan, M. (2017). Activity Trackers Implement Different Behavior Change Techniques for Activity, Sleep, and Sedentary Behaviors. Interactive Journal of Medical Research, 6(2). doi:10.2196/ijmr.6685
Dusheck, J. (1970, May 24). Fitness trackers accurately measure heart rate but not calories burned. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2017/05/fitness-trackers-accurately-measure-heart-rate-but-not-calories-burned.html
Etkin, J. (2016). The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification. Journal of Consumer Research, 42(6), 967-984. doi:10.1093/jcr/ucv095
Fereidooni, H., Frassetto, T., Miettinen, M., Sadeghi, A., & Conti, M. (2017). Fitness Trackers: Fit for Health but Unfit for Security and Privacy. 2017 IEEE/ACM International Conference on Connected Health: Applications, Systems and Engineering Technologies (CHASE). doi:10.1109/chase.2017.54
Gruwez, A., Libert, W., Ameye, L., & Bruyneel, M. (2017). Reliability of commercially available sleep and activity trackers with manual switch-to-sleep mode activation in free-living healthy individuals. International Journal of Medical Informatics, 102, 87-92. doi:10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2017.03.008
Jakicic, J. M., Davis, K. K., & Rogers, R. J. (n.d.). Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial. The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial. doi:doi:10.1001/jama.2016.12858
Live your best life. (n.d.). Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://www.fitbit.com/en-ca/home
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Petrow, S. (2016, January 18). Why that Fitbit might not be so good for you. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/01/14/why-fitbit-might-not-so-good-you/78789446/
Reardon, M. (2018, April 05). Alexa, Fitbit and Apple Watch are your digital snitches. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://www.cnet.com/news/alexa-fitbit-apple-watch-pacemaker-can-testify-against-you-in-court/
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Turse, N. (2018, January 29). Fitness Tracker Data Highlights Sprawling U.S. Military Footprint in Africa. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://theintercept.com/2018/01/29/strava-heat-map-fitness-tracker-us-military-base/
Zhou, W., & Piramuthu, S. (2014). Security/privacy of wearable fitness tracking IoT devices. 2014 9th Iberian Conference on Information Systems and Technologies (CISTI). doi:10.1109/cisti.2014.6877073