Monitoring what you eat is just as important as measuring the amount you walk each day. Why, then, has there been such little innovation in measuring calorific intake, asks Hasty’s Chris Hollindale.
Over the last few years, there has been an explosion in the number of people using technology to self-track metrics about themselves. Collectively known as the “quantified self” (QS), there are now products that allow you to track almost any metric you can think of: from your sleep patterns to your mood to the books you’ve read and the miles you’ve run. Judging by the latest range of gadgets unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, where a mind-boggling array of new tracking devices were announced, the trend is still in the ascendant.
Within the QS phenomenon, I’ve always had an inherent suspicion of step tracking, and, specifically, the FitBit device. Pedometers have been around for a long time, so if step tracking is genuinely useful, why has it suddenly seen a surge in popularity? If I’m fit and active, will walking a little more actually make a significant impact on my health anyway? Will it help me to lose weight? Does it help me to get fitter and stronger? Shouldn’t I just go to the gym instead? And is the data even accurate in the first place?
It always seemed to me that people were tracking their steps more for its own sake than as a motivator to actually go out and change something about their lifestyle. Whether as part of our inherent curiosity to know more about ourselves or simply as a way of creating beautiful graphs and charts of data, tracking steps for the sake of it is not going to do a person’s health and fitness any good. And let’s be honest, is the data even interesting in the first place?
On the surface, there don’t appear to be too many applications for knowing how many steps you’ve walked in a day. Sure, you could use the step count to assess how active you are against general norms – a common baseline in order to be considered “active” is 10,000 steps per day, which translates to around five miles – but surely most people are able to intuitively estimate how active they are without the need to track the data so exhaustively on a daily basis?
In FitBit’s introductory video, the company claims that everyday changes can lead you to walk as much as 700 miles further or even climb the equivalent height of Everest in a year. But does the lure of a higher step count really motivate people enough to make these significant everyday changes? How many people actually reach those lofty goals over the course of a year? It’s easy enough for people to make short-term changes, but for people with a standard routine and limited time, incorporating two miles of extra walking per day is going to be a hard thing to make stick in the long term.
Actually, the evidence is that step tracking can work. Statistics show that the average user takes over 40 per cent more steps per day; and a recent obesity study found that in the first six months, over 40 per cent of Fitbit users lost five or more pounds. Impressive numbers, and I think there are two reasons for this success.
The first is gamification. Gamification is one of the most appealing and motivating factors at play in the QS movement, with leaderboards being a key feature of most self-tracking apps. Competition is a powerful motivator, and even with something as simple as step tracking, being able to say that you’ve beaten your friend is a strong incentive to take the stairs at work, or to walk shorter distances instead of taking the car. Shame is also a powerful motivator: if you thought you were fit and healthy, but then found that you were way below the FitBit average in terms of the number of steps taken, you’d likely resolve to do something about it.
The beauty of gamification is that the tracking devices themselves don’t even need to be accurate to produce these motivations in people; they merely need to produce consistent results between users so that comparison is effective. Nike, whose proprietary Fuel Points measure has less everyday meaning than a straightforward statistic like the number of steps walked, knows this.
This encourages new Fuel Band users to compare their stats against other users rather than against individual goals that are difficult to immediately quantify. As such, gamification is built into the product from the beginning, and users can even compare their statistics against those of elite athletes if they so wish.
There are still challenges. Gamification will not be enough to make step tracking work for everybody. For every winner on the leaderboard, there is a loser: beating your friends can be a powerful motivator, but consistently losing to them can be just as powerful a de-motivator. And what if you forgot to put on your FitBit one morning? Would you take the stairs at work, or would you just take the elevator because you’d be unable to take the credit for it otherwise? The challenge for devices manufacturers here is to find other ways to encourage lifestyle changes outside of the friendly competition element.
And step tracking can be enormously effective at helping you to lose weight, without even changing how active you are. At its most basic, the amount of weight a person loses or gains comes down to the simple equation of calories in minus calories out. By tracking steps, you can immediately get a handle for one side of the equation by learning how many calories you use up in your normal daily activities over the course of an average day or week.
However, in order to actually achieve any weight loss, the other side of the equation still needs to be balanced. You can walk twenty miles a day, but you still won’t lose any weight if all you eat is pizza. So you need to track the amount of calories in as well. Unfortunately, this is where balancing the equation gets hard in today’s world. Whereas step tracking is passive and automatic, there is no existing way of tracking your food consumption without resorting to becoming a part-time data-entry person. (The current market-leading services, such as MyFitnessPal, require users to manually enter every item they eat and drink, which is both time-consuming and error-prone.)
Many metrics are becoming as easy to track as your steps, with products like the Withings scale for automatic weight tracking and WellnessFX, which can give you a full health breakdown in exchange for just a drop of blood. But, arguably, the most important metric, food consumption, does not yet even have a semi-automatic solution. Innovation here would be an enormous step towards solving our increasing problem with obesity.
Chris Hollindale is co-founder & CTO of Hasty