Fitness Trackers: Step by Step to Better Health or Driving Us Crazy?

One week of tracking steps, calories, sleep and happiness with technology.

ByABC News
August 12, 2013, 11:08 AM

Aug. 13, 2013— -- My behavior started changing the minute I strapped the fitness bands onto my arm - the Fitbit Flex, the Nike+ Fuelband, the Jawbone UP, the Shine by Misfit Wearables, and the Fitbit One in my pocket.

I wore the fitness tracking devices all over my body for a week and recorded everything I could into smartphone apps: how many steps I took every day, how many calories I consumed and burned, how many hours of sleep I got each night, how many cups of water (or beer) I drank, and on.

I wanted to see what it was like to have a summary of my day distilled into a neat set of numbers, which might provide a glimpse into the future for all of us. It could be easily gratifying, I thought. The definition of success? 10,000 steps. Failure? A 2,000-calorie lunch.

The devices made me conscious of what I was doing, or more often, not doing, and I lived a healthier life because of the bands for the first few days of the experiment. I ate salads and salmon, hit the gym and went to bed early. The Jawbone UP would even vibrate on my wrist after 15 minutes of inactivity, which spurred me to get up from my desk throughout the day and walk to the water cooler or jog down and up a few flights of stairs in my office building.

"I think this will be the mode for the future."

Under the gaze of the trackers, I even spent 10 minutes one morning deciding whether to wear heels with my outfit, weighing the increase in stylishness against the decrease in steps I'd be able to walk in them. I ended up wearing flip flops to work and changing into heels in the office.

The Intersection of Health and Technology

Such changes in behavior can be an important boon to the overall health of sedentary people, according to Gabriel Koepp, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., who studies how fitness trackers can help fight obesity and improve health.

"It's awareness. Most of the folks I talk to that start wearing it have no idea how many steps they take per day. They think they're active ... but people find out they only have 500 or 2,000 steps per day, and it's kind of an eye opener on the things they need to do for their health," Koepp said.

"After three weeks, people say I know where I'm at, and they almost self-treat. They increase physical activity or improve their dietary intake."

Koepp was right.

As I watched the data accumulate on my devices, I saw that I was hitting the right mark in terms of steps (usually around 10,000 a day), but falling short when it came to recommended sleep, getting only six hours of restless sleep a night. That discovery led to nightly internal debates about staying up to watch another episode of "Orange Is the New Black" versus getting more REM sleep logged in my Sleep Cycle app. With the data right in front of me, it became hard to ignore bad habits.

Koepp's research group at the Mayo Clinic is exploring possibilities for how wearable technology can make Americans healthier. He noted how they are at the early stages of the "age of data," which can be explored and shaped into health recommendations.

"Honestly, I think this will be the mode for the future, where physicians can track physical activity on a scalable level. A physician can say I want you to have half an hour of exercise three times a week, and it will give the physician and patient a record of accountability at their fingertips," Koepp said.

One fitness tracker who says that apps and devices have helped her overall health is weight-loss blogger Kenlie Tiggeman, who blogs at Tiggeman, 33, has lost more than 100 pounds since she started writing online about her struggles to shed weight in 2008. She now wears an Omron fitness pedometer to ensure she gets 10,000 steps every day.

Tiggeman was walking back from the grocery store in New Orleans, where she lives, when she explained how using a pedometer and sharing the results with her group of online supporters have helped keep her on track.

Tiggeman's numbers resonated with me: the more I used the devices, the more I saw the numbers going up. The awareness of my step count made me more aware of my choices throughout the day, and I started to make better ones. On my best day, I biked and walked across Manhattan as I ran errands rather than hopping in a taxi. I logged more than 15,000 steps.

What Are Fuel Points and Why Do I Have So Few of Them?

But in addition to being more health-conscious during my week of quantified living, I also lived in a constant state of anxiety. Had I walked enough? Had I eaten too much at lunch? Did this chart or that statistic mean that I was doomed to die young?

The constant mental tallying of my numbers and activity levels distracted me from less quantifiable things in life, like work and personal interactions. The inactivity reminders from the Jawbone UP band meant that it took me at least twice as long to get through one work assignment. Once distracted by that device, I'd feel the need to check my stats on all the trackers.

"The problem in general of constant connection is that because you're at the beck and call of every message that comes in, you can never focus on one thing or relax because you're constantly multitasking and being interrupted, which makes your brain not able to function the way it functions most effectively," said Joanne Cantor, communications researcher in Madison, Wis., and author of "Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress."

The apps' social functions, in which your fitness and calorie levels are shared with other users, could also be stressful. I didn't fully understand what a Nike+ Fuel score was, but I knew that my score was less than my peers' scores, and worried about it.

"I think [fitness tracking] has the potential to have a net positive and the potential to make us crazy," Cantor told me. "What could me more fascinating than yourself? [But] I can also see people worrying about their health, looking at their EKG and thinking I must be having a heart attack or their blood sugar saying I'm going to down the tubes here. Suppose we could monitor every little thing going on in our brain every moment. It would be overwhelming. There are times when ignorance is bliss."

For some users, such stressors are merely additional incentive to track more and work out more.

"Knowing someone else will see what I'm doing, and being honest with myself and those people on the Internet [are benefits]," Tiggeman, the weight loss blogger, told me. "I can't be full of crap. I have to be honest about it. It's given me the opportunity to own my journey in a way I haven't experienced.

"I'm lucky I've built a community around me. It allows me to connect with people I wouldn't otherwise through hashtags. People are really encouraging and it's given me a new goal," she said.

The members meet once every six weeks to discuss what they've been tracking lately and give presentations on what "experiments" they've performed on themselves and conclusions they've reached.

The group has tracked everything from spending enough time with their children to finding the exact right time, or "sweet spot," to go to bed each night.

"Pretty much everything can be tracked or quantified," said Konstantin Augemberg, another member of the Quantified Self New York group who is tracking 50 variables about his life for what he's calling the Quantified Summer project.

"I've even been recording how much time it takes to record," he said, laughing. "It's a science for yourself. It's about how we choose to use it. I may use technology to simplify my life. People do that. One guy saw how much information he consumed during the day and he wanted to reduce that."

Quantifying Myself

In the end, I'm in agreement with many of the experts I talked to about tracking. These devices are extremely useful at making us aware of habits we often don't think about and helping us change them.

The week-long experiment even led to some nice surprises. I found that the extra steps and bicycle rides became enjoyable in themselves, and not merely as a way of getting to my next destination. Knowing that a 15-minute walk to my apartment would make me a healthier person made it more worthwhile, and helped me slow down. The next TV episode or chore or social interaction could wait a few minutes.

"Often, the fundamental objective most of us have is improvement, whether at work or personally or otherwise," Quantified Self's Whitaker told me. "The tracking and awareness is basically a tool to empower or support people as they work to their pre-existing objectives."

It can be fun, too, to see your whole day (and night) quantified and shown back to you on a chart or graph, like a science project about you and only you. For a few days, I obsessively checked my sleep statistics, amazed at what I could find out about myself while I was asleep.

The Jawbone UP and Fitbit Flex were my favorites for this reason, as they seemed to offer the most comprehensive idea of my health through exercise, food and sleep charts and graphs on their iPhone apps.

Still, after a week living under the microscope of my trackers' judgmental eye, I grew tired of checking my statistics and devoting time and mental energy to thinking through every move I made. The experts echoed my concern. Even the Quantified Self guys told me they only track one variable for a short amount of time, maybe three months, and then move on.

Tiggeman, the weight-loss blogger, said she didn't want to devote any more time to logging than necessary.

"I don't have the patience or time for that," she said. "I like to track my steps because it's basic and easy, but my sleep patterns and those things I've tried for a week or two here or there. I don't have any dedication to that.

"The fact of the matter is if I'm exercising, I want to be able to post something and move on," she added. "I don't want it to consume my day."