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

PHOTO: Jawbone Up
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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.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • Fitness trackers count steps, calories, sleep, and mood
  • Medical community hopes data can help make patients healthier

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.

PHOTO:  How many steps did our writer take? It depends on the gadget. Click here for full infographic.
Fitness Tracker | Health Tracker Infographic - ABCNews

"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 AllTheWeigh.com. 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.

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