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March 09, 2012

Fitbit: Virtual Badges Influence Real Behavior

I am not going on a diet - and I have no interest in going to the gym, even if Google makes it incredibly easy to eat healthy on campus, and gym membership is free with equipment abundant. It's just not me. But despite this clear disinterest in my making any kind of physical life change, I have been wearing a Fitbit the last week, obsessively counting my steps, climbing the stairs and tracking how many miles I make on foot. I've even been wearing the lightweight tracker at night to see how long and how well I sleep - working to optimize that as well.

So why would I resort to such silliness? It's the stinkin' badges - helped along by casual competition with friends, and now, despite my best attempts to not make any actual alterations to how I behave, I am sure I am doing things that are actually better for me, in the same way that Foursquare recommendations have pushed me to new venues and trying new things, based on badges and recommendations from friends.

Yesterday's Fitbit activity shows average walking, and lots of climbing.

The Fitbit itself is not entirely new - having debuted in late 2008, and so far, I've been uninterested. I recognize that my mostly sedentary activity of holding down a desk, and chasing after my kids being my main form of exercise would not be particularly interesting. Even now, while I managed 10,000+ steps and 50 flights of stairs yesterday, I still managed to scarf down a great bacon and cheddar sandwich for lunch, so weight loss is not the target.

After scads of occasional tweets and other status updates from acquaintances updating me on the minutiae of their daily fitness activity, it took a simple email of a friend's weekly dashboard last week to recognize this was a device I needed. In minutes, I'd not only purchased the $99 Fitbit Ultra tracker, but also pre-ordered the Wifi-capable Aria scale for another $129. It was the stats, and the idea of competition, that made me knew I had to get it.

A day's activity, showing spikes of walking across campus and at home.

Like a true geek, I'm understandably curious about the Fitbit's accuracy. Does it count 5 steps as a flight of stairs? What about 10? What about small steps, big steps? Do I get credit for manually shaking the tracker or running in place? But despite my moments of tinkering, I've found the tracker's daily reports to be especially accurate. I can spot when I walked to and from my car, to and from lunch, and even when I went from building to building for meetings. I can see when I chased my kids around the backyard, and by looking at the sleep tracker, get a good idea for when they started yowling in the morning, begging to get up.

A night's sleep - 95% efficient, I am told, despite Diet Coke addiction.

Gaining one's first badges, such as 5,000 or 10,000 steps, or 10 flights of stairs traversed, is pretty straight forward. But I wanted more. When I got home and put the kids to bed, I was at a mere 14 flights of stairs, so I literally, alone in a quiet house, went up and down my 15 stairs at home 11 times, to get to 25 flights. It must have been quite the sight. That got me a 25 flights badge, and later, when I interrupted each chore with 5 more flights, I finally made it to 50 flights of stairs, which earned me a new badge, not to mention a little bit of sweat and some tightness in my calves, which said the exercise might actually have been working. Tricked again!

A badge for 50 flights is one thing. What about 100 flights?

Had it not been for the allure of the 50 floors badge, there's no question I wouldn't have been hiking up and down in my house in some solitary unfulfilling challenge. Had it not been for the intrigue of comparing my daily steps accumulated against my friends, and seeing if I could walk more steps than the previous day, or sleep more efficiently one night versus the previous night, I wouldn't be thinking about it at all. Once the scale arrives and threatens to send my weight to my own internal profile, I wonder if it too is going to impact how I eat, measure and commit to something that resembles good behavior.

As for the Fitbit itself, I can't complain at all. It's very light, inconspicuous, and the software is practically invisible. Just connect to the computer, hit sync, and it's good to go. I'm now addicted to these stats, like any blogger chasing page views, or your favorite fantasy football fan whose future hangs on every rushing yard. The badges are driving the behavior. So if you have a Fitbit and want to challenge my stats, invite me by email. Let's do this.