The Why of Fitness Trackers

October 15, 2013

The Why of Fitness Trackers → via @_patrickwelker

This text is about motivation, the similarities between a Tamagotchi and fitness trackers, and also my general idea of why these things work in your favor and are more than superfluous gadgets.

The Tamagotchi Effect

Combining health and gadgets is like the carrot and the stick approach. The motivational aspect is definitely there. All fitness gadgets work with what I call the Tamagotchi effect. You have to care for your new little device, feed it with data and look after it – otherwise it will die, i.e., you’ll render it useless if you neglect it. In return, you gain a pat on the back if you were active and shall gain insight in the delightful visual representation of your doings – of course your sporty version of the Tamagotchi can also give constructive criticism and archive your activities.

Personally, I experienced the Tamagotchi effect quite a few times before. In 1995, when I was fourteen years old, I got this cool watch which went with the name Avocet Vertech as a Christmas present from my father. This gadget was one of the first altimeter watches ever brought to market, and I wore it on each and every snowboard ride. It was capable of measuring a ton of data: the vertical feet you rode, recorded the runs, maximum vertical rate, displayed the current and average rates, had an aircraft precision altimeter, a kind of weather station, all the standard functions of normal watches. Plus, you didn’t have to wait in line for the lift – you just need to press a button and it took you to the top of the mountain. Okay, I lied about the last feature, but that’s how futuristic it felt. I loved it.

Avocet Vertech and G-Shock

I also had a cheaper G-Shock watch for scuba diving, which I used to track the time under water. The problem with these early gadgets was that back in the days you data was inaccessible. For instance, you would have to populate your diver’s log manually. And, a day full of winter sport activity was overwritten the next day when you used the watch again. I didn’t even think about writing a log, and it hasn’t bothered me that this feature didn’t exist.

Well, that was back then… lets head on to the 21th century. More recently I made my first experience with some next-generation gear. I’d call it my first encounter with the first generation of next-gen fitness gadgets.

In 2006 Nike released their Nike+ sensor. It was placed inside a blank space in your shoes inner sole – the poor man’s version was to clip the sensor onto the lashes so that you could use it with every shoe. The chip with the sensor recorded the data. Back home you connected your iPod (with a cable, what else?) to your Mac and after syncing you could upload your data to Nike’s crappy flash website. From there, you were finally able to enjoy the visual representation of your stats and set goals or challenges with other users. This was 7 years ago which is ancient history in tech years.

The key point is that Nike+ got a lot of people, including me, into running. This was very unlikely to happen because I had a strange point of view on being passionate about certain sports. I never was into any of the classic sports, like track and field athletics or team sports. Well, before puberty kicked in I participated in a couple of them and even managed to get a brown belt in Kickboxing. But as a teenager those sports always stroked me as pretty boring and too regulated. That’s why I always preferred sports like Skateboarding, Snowboard and the like. Until my Nike inspired running epiphany, I never thought that I could enjoy a traditional sport. Before that it felt like comparing Classic and Jazz, with Classic being for those who like structure, order, regulation and only could play music when they have a sheet of notes in front of them, and Jazz being for the musician who is capable of improvising and expressing oneself much more freely. While there still is some truth in that some sports are more regulated than others, I dismissed my narrow-minded view and started accepting people’s passion for their chosen sport. After all, I like Classical music and Jazz, and there is no need to be nit-picky.1

The second next-gen experience came to my house in the form of Nintendo’s Wii Fit which got me into Yoga and classic home workout. Another thing I couldn’t image myself doing. I felt as indifferent about it as with the normal sports mentioned above.

With the release of Wii Fit and the balance board Nintendo brought something new to the market in 2007. Unlike other external controllers like EyeToy for Sony’s PlayStation which was released in 2003, this controller did focus on a new kind of gaming experience and merging it with another movement: fitness. The balance board and Wii Fit where a bundle that formed a unit which to me was the first successful fitness “game” ever made which made it into the living room. Even my parents, who aren’t into sports, were hooked the instance the stepped on the board and played their first exercise.

Sticking to the stick and carrot metaphor, the Wii Fit balance board was a different kind of carrot. The new technology and the fun you had with it was the real reward and motivation enough to exercise. The visual representation of your workout data was just the cherry on top. It’s no wonder that has become one of the best selling console games in history.

These were my first experiences with next-generation fitness gadgets. They worked as a gateway drug. In the first months, I couldn’t imagine going running without my tracker – I wanted the stats, and I wanted to archive them. I even decided against running even if I desperately wanted to just because the battery of the sensor was flat. But ultimately I decided not to care about it. After all, I enjoyed the sport enough not to depend on that gadget. It was the same with the balance board. While doing Yoga on it I always had to wait, there was no way to skip the short pause between the next exercise. Doing my Yoga workout without it felt much more like a fluid workout. It also saved my about 5 minutes.

I think Nike and Nintendo hit the mark with their products, and I will remember them for inspiring me that much. This is also why I’m curious to read about what developers will come up with in a few months when it comes to make good use of the new M7 chip in the iPhone 5S – a potential fitness gadget that several million of people already own and which might lessen the general interest in existing products of this category.

But we’re not there yet, so the next chapter is about what this new generation of fitness gadgets, the so called fitness trackers, do for you.

Push Notifications from your Body

One thing I’d like to tell you in advance is that I wouldn’t count any of the fitness tracking gadgets as an essential must have. Fitness trackers aren’t gadgets that one usually needs. They are want items. So what makes us want them in the first place?

I know that I haven’t moved as much as I should have in the last week and that my sleep pattern was terrible; I got way too little sleep. Matter of fact, our body constantly sends out signals; we get live status updates all the time. The older we get, the louder this bio alarm goes off. Still, the sad truth is that most of us have become accustomed to ignoring these frequent alarms. It’s just like with the kind of push notifications on our iOS devices which we haven’t incorporated into or accepted as part of our workflow. If we don’t interact with them, we tune out, be it consciously or subconsciously. After receiving a dozen of Facebook messages I didn’t care about I removed them completely from the notification center, for other notifications I settled with muting them.

It’s just the other way around with a fitness tracker: you deliberately decide to finally unmute the notifications from your body – you are willingly listening to the formerly muted tri-tone alert of your organism. In return, you get a visual representation of major parts which benefit your health, namely sleep and movement. It’s like you accept that digital warning sign right in front of you as an amplifier of how your body is feeling. So, the great thing about these health trackers is that you finally get the chance to take a look at the statistics and see how shitty you treated your body over the last week.

There’s also something new that happened over the last years: the birds eye perspective. We can take a step back a view our progress over weeks, months and even years. Besides from the fitness gadgets having become smaller and more functional each year, the biggest change that happened in the recent years is the rise of social media and web applications. Fitness gadgets entered the mass market and became more useful, even the data itself is more accessible than ever before. In theory, you now can do with your data whatever you want, the most popular gadgets have export functions and public API’s.

What really would be great is a common standard format which makes it simpler for users to export and import their data, maybe even to manage all their data under one roof. If these stats are amplifiers, then I’d like to listen to the music the play on more than one location. I’m positive that some clever people will think of a hub for all the data which users gather in different apps. Hopefully they will make it work for all of us. Exist is a web app that is currently in beta and has that noble goal in mind. I’m looking forward to it.

The sad thing about the status quo - having no open standard - is that company’s don’t get stimulated to use a format. I can foresee that I will wake up screaming in the middle of the night wondering why it isn’t possible to import and export my existing Nintendo’s Wii Fit U data to and from other apps. But this is Nintendo, they are proprietary gods… even more than Apple.2

Speaking of Nintendo’s Wii Fit U, they will also offer a tracking gadget.3 I can already see me wearing another device… possibly on a chain around my neck, then I have to find something to balance things out… maybe an old mac mouse in the middle just like that guy from the Robot Mafia.

robot mafia

If you counted right, you would arrive at a total of three gadgets, which I might end up wearing around my neck in a months time. That’s a sharp mind you got there, and this result is also the transition to the next chapter of this article.

My Fitness Tracker

I was toying with the idea of getting another gadget since I first heard about the Fitbit. Although I was happily running almost every day for 2 years without any tracking device, something changed. I was a bit too enthusiastic in my second year of running, and due to some old injuries I sustained while Skateboarding I managed to catch myself a chronic knee injury which prevents me from running longer distances. I had a short affair with swimming but running remained my favorite. Since I couldn’t do it anymore the way I used to – running longer distances – I became lazy. As a compromise, I started some light interval training which doesn’t stress my knee too much. I’m still lazy, so to find out how lazy I actually am, a fitness tracker seem to be the ideal tool. Therefore, I purchased my first next-generation fitness tracker, the Withings Pulse, which in my book is a third or fourth generation fitness tracker.

pulse package

Since I didn’t want to write a full product review (I think there are already enough out there in the wild), I’m just going to write some things of my chest:

Naturally, I don’t trust the values which the device generates 100 percent (and I trust calories burnt even less). But I knew before buying into the fitness tracker experience that those gadgets can’t be precise like professional equipment – whatever athletes and doctors use, I don’t think they would consider a Pulse or Fitbit an equivalentaquilvanet replacement.

My motivation to buy the Pulse was primarily to track my sleep patterns (and maybe make a connection to my physical activity). I use it every night, and the wrist band is very comfortable - it doesn’t bother me at all. I say this as someone who abandoned wrist watches completely.

So far this worked for me pretty well. I’m more aware of my sleep deficit and succeed in balancing things out more often.

Overall I enjoy the stats, I feel a tad more motivated and I’m keen to get more geeky, for instance integrating them into Panic’s Statusboard.

  1. On another note: there are also some people who swear by Windows. Imagine that, crazy, I know. But if they are passionate about it, there’s no real need to play the evangelist and tell them about why you think Mac’s are better – the you is not important when it comes to people’s personal choices.

  2. It’s cool enough for me that they finally decided to recognize the possibilities of an online store and the MiiVerse community – Wii Fit U and Wii Sports club will have much more of a social aspect thanks to this. I don’t care for facebooking my latest run, but when it comes to gaming this makes so much more sense to go a bit more Internet. Thanks Nintendo!

  3. Hilarious and loooong video ahead. Learn about the new haircut of the instructor and each and every step a Nintendo employee took while testing the new tracker (it feels like a real-time recording… way too long. I still made it to the end).

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