It is virtually impossible to walk across Boston College’s campus without spotting at least one person sporting a Fitbit. Over the last few years, the wearable fitness tracker trend has grown exponentially, with Fitbits at the forefront. According to Berkeley Science Review, Fitbit sales accounted for more than 50% of over three million fitness tracker sales back in 2013-2014, and that number has only grown in more recent years as the trend has really taken off. In fact, the Boston College Healthy You program was responsible for some of those huge sale numbers when it purchased Fitbit devices for eligible faculty, and offered discounts for more advanced models.
However, despite all the hype, there is not substantial research backing the effectiveness of these devices. Do Fitbits actually work, or have millions of people purchased useless wristbands?
According to the Berkeley Science Review article, which compiled previous research conducted on fitness trackers, they can be useful for some aspects. Fitbits have been shown to accurately measure steps, which is the function many people are most interested in. However, they are less accurate in calculating distance traveled and calories burned. Thus, depending on what aspect of the Fitbit you’re drawn to, Fitbits may be more or less useful to you.
Hilary De Vries, an Associate Director for Boston College Campus Recreation, also cited shortcomings in technology as one limit to Fitbit utility. De Vries cites inaccurate heart rate monitors, lack of waterproof capabilities, and misinterpretation of movements as downfalls to the product at the present time. For instance, she reminds us that a Fitbit does not accurately pick up on activities such as cycling, and thus will misread our overall activity level.
Overall, Fitbits have some strengths and some weaknesses technologically. The more pressing question is whether they help people get healthy or provide false hope of a healthy lifestyle.
According to a recent NPR article, it seems that the latter may be the case. A recent study split 470 people into two groups: one that used Fitbits and another that did not after six months of trying to become healthier. Two years later, the groups were equally active, but the group that wore Fitbits lost less weight. In fact, the group without Fitbits lost an average of 13 pounds, while the group that wore Fitbits lost an average of 7.7 pounds.
John Jakicic, one of the researchers cited in the article, theorized that people may feel reassured by their high fitness numbers—reassured enough to eat more than they should.
“People would say, ‘Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.' And they might eat more than they otherwise would have," Jakicic says of the counterintuitive nature of the study results. Jakicic also suggested that while meeting step counts may be motivating for some, failing to meet the standard may be discouraging for others. De Vries also emphasizes that the utility of fitness trackers depends on how you are best motivated.
However, it may not be time to throw out the Fitbit just yet. Overall, the NPR article concludes that Fitbits are likely to be most effective for people who are already active and interested in tracking their fitness levels more closely. On a campus as active as BC’s, it is not difficult to find such people. Numbers on a Fitbit perhaps cannot be your only motivator in your search for better health, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any usefulness.
De Vries counters her discussion of technological shortcomings with a discussion of the pros of such devices. She argues that “the most consistent pro of wearing a Fitbit or similar activity tracker is the initial awareness it creates for the user. Oftentimes we may assume we are more active than perhaps is true.” In her opinion, it can be “eye opening” to see how sedentary or active you are when you first start tracking your movements. The Fitbit can act as a wakeup call by providing concrete data about how active you are—or are not.
She further emphasizes that the utility of Fitbits is very dependent on the person’s individual interests and needs. She cites research regarding poor outcomes of sedentary lifestyles, and states that “if the device motivates the user to walk more, then it is a meaningful benefit.”
De Vries refers to fitness trackers as “a good start” to a healthier lifestyle, but it is not the full picture. Supporting De Vries' views, one student who does not own a Fitbit defended her decision by citing the Fitbit users who pace around the room just to make their step count: “That’s not really what it’s all about...That’s not the exercise they want you to do, or the exercise that’s effective.”
The bottom line is stick to whatever keeps you active, regardless of whether it’s a step-counting wristband or not.