Fitness trackers, little pedometer-type things that purport to measure your activity and help you get into shape, are on about a billion gift guides this year. But maybe they shouldn't be. Here are the two most pressing reasons not to buy someone a fitness tracker like a Fitbit, Nike+ Fuelband, or Jawbone Up as a gift.
1. It implies your giftees are fat. And maybe they are but if you feel like that's something they should know you should probably not use a pedometer as a messenger. Be nice!
2. 99% of people won't use it. And this is the more pressing reason--it's not that they're bad products, exactly, it's just that fitness trackers have positioned themselves as gadgets for the masses, a futuristic way to get in shape. And they're not! They are helpful tools for a very particular type of person, and you know maaaaaybe one of that type of person, and that person probably already has one of these.
I've been using both of the new Fitbit products for a few weeks now. I am in awful shape, an overripe chimera of laziness and injury and sedentary job and also laziness, and I thought "hey, I bet this'll help motivate me to get into shape!" It did not, and that's only partly due to the execution of the product. The Fitbit One, which just about every reviewing publication ranks as the best or one of the best fitness trackers out there, is fine. It's tiny and well-designed, it can track your steps, it syncs with an app on your phone, it tracks your sleep patterns. All of that stuff together can be very helpful for monitoring your health, but I suspect very few people will actually see the benefit.
That's because fitness trackers are dumb. I don't mean dumb as in "bad," I mean dumb in the same way that an old flip-phone is dumber than a smartphone. It just can't do very much on its own. Here's one (unusually active) day of using the Fitbit.
Last week, before going to bed, I remembered to have the Fitbit track my sleep. I dug the Fitbit out of my pants, put on the big velcro wristband, stuck the Fitbit in the wristband's pocket, pressed the button to tell the Fitbit I was going to bed, and then went to bed. Woke up the next morning, pressed the button to tell the Fitbit I was awake. Took the Fitbit out of the wristband, put it in my pocket again. Had breakfast. Logged onto the Fitbit app to tell the app I had breakfast. Searched for the specific breakfast I had, guessed how much I had eaten. Logged it. Biked to work--about a 6.5-mile trip--which the Fitbit did not register, because it only registers walking. Logged onto the Fitbit app to tell it precisely how long and how far the bike trip was.
Worked. Had lunch, logged onto the Fitbit app to tell it what I had for lunch. Fitbit directory didn't list what I had--it mostly includes fast food or chain food--so I guessed at the calorie count. Went to the gym after work. Moved Fitbit from pants to a clip on my workout shorts. Worked out. Fitbit doesn't pick up on any of that, because I didn't do anything like walking, which is what the Fitbit measures. Logged onto Fitbit app to tell it what I did. Weighed myself at the gym. Logged onto Fitbit to tell it how much I weigh. Biked home. Logged onto Fitbit app to tell it about that. Ate dinner. Logged onto Fitbit app and took my best guess as to calorie count. Took Fitbit out of pants, synced with iPhone app. Put it into wristband and told it I was going to bed.
From all of that, I saw how many calories I burned, how far I walked, how many flights of stairs I climbed, how many calories I took in. I could see graphs over time, comparing my activity day by day, week by week, month by month. All of that is cool! But I am not an obsessive type, and I lost interest in spending literally hours per day with the Fitbit app after about two days.
This isn't exclusive to Fitbit; all of the major fitness trackers (Fitbit, Nike+ Fuelband, Jawbone Up) have their own quirks and pros and cons--the Fuelband and Jawbone Up, as wristbands, don't have the problem of having to remember to bring it with you, though they don't track your food intake--but they mostly work the same way. They're glorified pedometers with added fitness tracking software. To really get the most out of these gadgets, you have to be kind of obsessive. Just using them casually gets you very little of value; for a few days, it's cool to see how many steps you take, and I did take the stairs rather than the escalator to get more "points," but I very quickly tired of it. They just don't give enough information because they can't extract enough data, and they can't be encouraging because they don't analyze the data they get.
I still think there's a place for fitness trackers. The Basis Band, for example, is one step closer to being actually helpful for two main reasons. First: it can measure your heart rate, unlike any of the other trackers I mentioned. Second: it uses that data to recommend new exercises--instead of just giving you a chart, it'll advise that you walk around the office for ten minutes. That's much more helpful to the vast majority of people who don't like looking at charts all day.
Fitness trackers can only really be helpful when they get smart. Data is great, but for most people, it's not enough to just gather data and present it. You have to analyze it, figure out what it means and how to use it. The dream of a fitness tracker is pretty much like a fitness-centric version of Google Now: it needs to take in your data and then figure out what you actually want to know. That's the next generation of this data tech--it's not about the data, it's about the conclusions. What we want is a fitness tracker that suggests, that figures out your lifestyle and then gives you advice, that actually helps you get into shape rather than just telling you exactly how out of shape you are. Hopefully the next generation of fitness trackers go in that direction. But for now, don't bother with a pedometer.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.