How effective are movement and fitness trackers?

Jawbone Up

The Jawbone UP. (Photo: Numrush.nl)


Health and fitness data-tracking devices are everywhere. You can spot Jawbone’s UP bracelets on everyone from Tribeca moms frequenting Bari Studio to Tasting Table employees, and Nike FuelBands and FitBit Flexes now look at home between bangles on CEOs’ wrists. Nike is releasing a new-and-improved version, the FuelBand SE, on November 6.

And these are not just running watches. They quantify your workout-to-work behavior in an all-encompassing way, tracking calories burned, how many steps you take, how many minutes you sit without getting up, and how many times a day you daydream about pizza. (Okay, I made that last one up, but it’ll probably be released next year.)

The question is: Do wearers even know what the numbers mean? And if they do, will the quantification of their behavior help them live healthier, happier lives? We chatted with experts and those who’ve tried the tracking tools to gain some insight.


Serena Williams shows off her FuelBand in a campaign for Nike. (Photo: Blog.tennisround.com)

Information gathering

For some people, tracking devices are little more than a source of interesting information they’d like to have on hand about their day and habits. “I don’t wear it every day, and it’s not so much for me to reach goals, but just to see what the patterns are,” says Kahina Giving Beauty founder Katharine L’Heureux, whose husband gave her a Nike FuelBand for her birthday in early October. “I don’t think I’m going to wear it forever; it’s just good to have this information.”

Get-healthy motivation?

But for most people, serious habit redux is the end-goal of wearing a tracking device. “From a behavioral psychology standpoint, just wearing it on your body could be a motivator. But what we find is that different people are motivated by different things,” says Chris Downie, the founder of SparkPeople, a website that helps individuals reach health and fitness goals and makes its own device, the Spark Activity Tracker. (Downie is also speaking on a panel called “Is Tracking for Everyone? How Wearable Computing is Changing Fitness,” at this weekend’s Health Interactive conference in Los Angeles.)

“Some people are extraordinarily motivated by data,” Downie explains, while others may be more motivated by social cues, like a BFF to run or lift with, or situational goals, like looking great at a wedding. Figuring out your personal motivators is the first step in determining whether a tracker will work for you.

Putting the data to work

If you are motivated by numbers, having them will still only get you so far. “Like anything else, it’s not the device that’s going to change the behavior, it’s the individual,” says People’s Bootcamp founder Adam Rosante, who is speaking on the same Health Interactive panel. “The two biggest hurdles are the ability to take action and maintain consistency.” So going from “My UP says I don’t walk enough” to “I’m going to walk a half a mile on my lunch break” to “Now I’m doing it every day.”

Pitfalls to avoid

What makes this even more difficult, is that you need to stay committed to the action without letting the numbers overwhelm you. Feeling overwhelmed by a flood of data can lead to paralyzing inertia, Rosante says, as can diving in too deeply. “It’s like a sprint,” he explains. “What will happen is that people obsessively track every single thing, and they get so burned out, they fall off the rails completely.”

In the end, the key is to “find something that’s simple, helps you align with your goals, and keeps you motivated over the long-term,” he says. Whether that’s a FuelBand or a trainer who inspires you. —Lisa Elaine Held

Have you used a tracker? Tell us if it’s helped you reach your health goals, in the Comments below.

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10 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. October 30th, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I’ve been wearing the Nike FuelBand on and off for several months and I definitely notice I’m more inclined to skip the subway and walk when I wear it. It motivates me to move more!

  2. October 30th, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    I bought a Jawbone UP as soon as they came out and it really motivates me to hit my fitness goals. I can tell when I’m slacking and when my sleep effects my activity. It’s interesting to see how well you sleep through the night when you do different activities through out the day. You can really dive into “you” and be the healthiest person you want to be. I just hope they come out with a slimmer design because I think they are still too bulky. Great review!

  3. November 1st, 2013 at 11:17 am

    I’ve been wanting to get a jawbone bracelet! I’m motivated by numbers, I think just having it on my wrist would remind me to make small changes like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, etc.

    Also – where can one find the OTHER bracelet featured next to the blue Jawbone UP one???

  4. November 1st, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I got the Fitbit Flex and it changed my life. I went from no steps ( pretty easy to do when you work from home ) to walking 2 miles a day and this month my goal is 3 miles. I didn’t drown in the data, I flourished.

  5. December 11th, 2013 at 12:40 am

    The Nike a Fuel Band pushed me over the top. It is always on my wrist, kind of a constant reminder to walk past the elevators.
    It has given me a feeling of feeling better, and that makes me move, and all without overdoing it at a gym. Just daily, normal activities and movements.

  6. December 11th, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    I use the Fitbit Plus. I like the tracking of my steps and sleep pattern. I believe that it keeps me centered on my exercise goals. Like the article above said, it is still up to the individual to put the data to good use.

  7. July 24th, 2014 at 8:19 am

    I have had my Fitbit Force since February. It has been a key part of me losing over 100 lbs. I find that the ranking that Fitbit does with friends helps me, I am a bit of a competitive person. Also knowing my steps are being counted makes me more likely to park further away, be the first to offer to take the dog for a walk, that sort of stuff.

  8. October 11th, 2014 at 3:09 am

    I got the Fitbit Flex and it changed my life very nice my life as

  9. patty
    February 5th, 2015 at 11:08 am

    I started to use my Jawbone up 24 after Christmas. I love it!!! It has motivated me to increase my steps, water, activity and sleep! I went from a couple thousand steps a day to 16 thousand steps a day ! My team has increased and we encourage each other to do better and get to stepping! Its definitely a great motivator for myself and my friends that also bought one! I do the 5 mile Leslie Sansone dvd in the mornings that I don’t go to the gym and make sure I take the long way around to get more steps!!!!

  10. Sam
    February 19th, 2015 at 11:49 am

    I absolutely love the fitbit. Does anybody no the major differences between it and the Jawbone?

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