Fitbit Flex

July 23rd, 2013

In the beginning of June, I began wearing a Fitbit Flex. I decided to purchase one for two reasons. First, wearable computing is growing very quickly, and is increasingly more interesting as well. Second, the idea of measuring (a few elements of) my health on a daily basis is fascinating to me, so I thought it might be beneficial to do so.

The Flex has become a much larger part of my daily routine than I thought it would. If you are unfamiliar with it, the Flex is a relatively unassuming wristband-bound device that tracks how many steps you take and your movement while you sleep and syncs that data to a companion iPhone application using Bluetooth. The iPhone application shows you (approximately) how many steps you made each day, what (approximate) distance you walked, and (approximately) how many calories you’ve burned. In addition, the application allows you to log meals as well.

Typically when I begin using some kind of system that’s supposed to improve my life in some way but requires constant input from me, I use it for a while when I’m excited about it, until one day when something gets in the way (life) or I just forget, and from then on I forget to use it altogether. To do applications are the best example of this; to be useful, they require constant user input. As a result, once the user fails to enter a new task, the motivation to continue using it begins to disappear.

I assumed the Flex and meal logging would follow that same pattern—I would use it for a couple weeks because I’d still be excited about a new piece of technology, but once that newness wore off and once I forgot to log a day’s meals, I would stop paying attention to it. And then it would be another device in a drawer.

After nearly two months of use, though, I’m still using it. And not just using some of it, like step counts—I’m also using meal logging and sleep tracking as well.

I think that’s because the Flex provides a certain amount of information without any effort on my part. As long as I wear it, I can see how much I’ve moved around each day, and a (good enough) approximation of how many calories I’ve burned. That’s quite informative on its own. Actual data (over a fairly large period of time) makes it much more clear to myself that I need a sustained plan for getting in better shape, and crucially, it also is much more rewarding on days when I am quite active. Seeing how many miles I’ve moved, and feeling the pleasant little buzz the Flex makes when I cross my daily goal, is surprisingly powerful. It’s certainly more powerful than the vague sense I had before that I wasn’t active enough.

As a result of that “free” information, I have a large motivation to also log my meals, because doing so will show me my (rough) caloric input versus my (rough) caloric output. We all know that certain foods are very high in calories, carbohydrates and fats, but it’s an amazing thing when you can get a fairly good idea of how many calories you’ve already eaten for the day, how many you’ve burned, and what that piece of chocolate cake is going to do. Suddenly, there’s a higher internal cost to eating badly, because you can see it all laid out for you.

But interestingly, logging my meals—something I’ve gotten in the habit of doing for the above reasons—has had a more subtle effect, too: eating well consistently is much more satisfying than it otherwise would be. Each time I check in that I had fruit or vegetables rather than chips or french fries, it’s gratifying. It makes it a bit of an accomplishment. I didn’t expect that at all, but at least for me, there’s absolutely a feeling of accomplishment that results from consistently eating and logging healthier meals and snacks.

Because I now have immediately accessible information about how much I exercise and what I eat, it’s given me much more motivation to plan my meals and exercise, and to stick with it. Before, it was fairly easy to skip out on a day’s exercise (which turned into a few days, and then weeks…) or to shrug off a day of poor meal choices as a one-time fluke (even if it wasn’t), because I could. It’s much harder for me to do that, though, when the information is right in front of my face. That’s important.

What’s important, too, is that it hasn’t turned me into a calorie-counting, joyless automaton. It hasn’t turned eating into something that’s purely for providing energy and nutrients. I don’t always avoid large meals or dessert because it might bump me over my calorie target for the day. In fact, it’s been liberating, because it’s helped me impose a bit of discipline in my regular eating, so having an occasional large meal or a dessert doesn’t feel shameful at all—it’s something that I can enjoy without worrying that I’m eating terribly. I know I’m consistently eating well, so occasional indulgence won’t hurt.

It’s interesting how powerful a little information can be.