The biggest weakness of the Fitbit is inside all of us

I used to be a fat man. Not Biggest Loser fat, but fond enough of my bakery treats to have spent more than a decade on the wrong side of morbid obesity. It would have killed me eventually.

But about four or five years ago I got rid of most of the weight through a combination of brutal exercise and calorie control. (I know, who’da thunk it?) And since then I’ve (mostly) kept it off.

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But it’s a struggle. It’s a hell of a struggle to change the habits of a lifetime in the first place, and even more so not to relapse. So anything which helps keep me out of the bakery and going to the gym, or the dojo, or just walking the damn dog a couple of times a week, is welcome.

That’s why I rushed to embrace the Fitbit earlier this year. It’s why I’m still wearing it right now, even though it’s not a magic device that melts fat and builds muscle like an action movie montage.

So, for those of you unfamiliar with the technology, what the hell am I talking about?

The Fitbit is just one of a whole bunch of wearable gizmos — digital pedometers really — which have been selling like the hotcakes I shouldn’t be eating anymore. I can’t speak to the usefulness of competitors like Nike’s FuelBand because I’ve never used them, but I’ve been wearing my Fitbit since getting it last Christmas. It’s basically a small black lozenge-shaped device, a little smaller than your little finger. You can slip it into your pocket, or put it in a clip-on holder and attach it to a piece of clothing. Your jeans pocket, a bra strap, whatever. It measures not just the number of steps you take, but the intensity of your movement. There’s also a quite sophisticated altimeter to keep track of the number of floors you have climbed—(although ‘floor’ is really just an estimate).

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As somebody who works in front of a screen all day I can attest to the accuracy of the Fitbit in tracking how much energy I burn—or don’t. On days when deadlines see me slumped in front of my keyboard, it lets me know all about my complete lack of mobility.

Basic data is displayed on the small screen, but the real magic happens on the Fitbit website. There is a wealth of information for the data nerd on the Fitbit dashboard: calories consumed, the breakdown of those calories into proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, the amount of sleep you had last night—even the quality of that sleep, at least in terms of wakefulness. And of course physical activity. It’s always fascinating to check out the site after a gym session and relate the data to the workout you just did.

It’s not unknown for Fitbit enthusiasts to spend the last fifteen minutes of the day running from one end of the house to the other just to make their ten or fifteen or 20,000 step goal. I’ve done it myself, despite feeling like quite the idiot for doing so.

So what are the downsides? Well, there are some activities it just doesn’t measure well: weightlifting, for instance. Situps. Riding a bike. Swimming, obviously.

But you can return to the website and log those activities yourself. Magical elves somewhere within the Fitbit server will calculate how many calories you burned and credit them to your dashboard. But the requirement to keep up with manual data entry is also one of the weak points of the system.

Especially when it comes to measuring your calorie intake. As anybody who’s lost a significant amount of weight will confirm, energy in is more important than energy out. You have to exercise like a bastard to burn off one doughnut. Better to just not eat the thing in the first place. This is why tracking your calorie intake is so important. In my case, I might do very well throughout the day, only to find that I have trashed my best efforts with a couple of glasses of wine in the evening.

Tracking your food intake, which can’t be done automatically, is quickly revealed as the most important part of making the Fitbit work for you. Unfortunately it is also the point of critical failure in the whole system. Especially if, like me, you often eat out.

One of my many writing jobs involves reviewing restaurants for an in-flight magazine. I’m not complaining — getting paid to eat well is awesome. But it’s almost impossible to track the calorific value of a restaurant or café meal. When I’m eating at home, I do it simply: a piece of chicken, some steamed vegetables. After a couple of days of fine dining for the magazine, I actually look forward to something simple like that. And because such a meal is so simple I can very accurately enter the data into the Fitbit website.

There are thousands of restaurant meals already entered into Fitbit’s database, but most of them are from American chain restaurants and so of no use to anybody outside the US. After messing around with or even missing a few entries because of the difficulty involved in quantifying the caloric content of store-bought food, it can be tempting to just forget about the whole thing and give up.

Giving up is an ever present temptation when you are trying to lose or control your weight.

And there are more problems: the Fitbit is so convenient to wear, so small, so easily made part of your life as a wearable piece of technology, that it is easily forgotten. Easily put through a washing machine. Easily left on one piece of clothing when you change into another one. And surprisingly easy to lose getting in and out of cars. If you are wearing it at your hip, as most people do, you’re a good chance to get it caught on your seatbelt as you climb out.

But underlying all this is a deeper, existential problem. While the mechanics of weight loss are, for most people, very simple, (Increase your energy burn. Decrease your energy intake) anybody who has successfully lost and kept off a significant amount of weight for a significant amount of time can tell you there is more to it than that. Overeating, a lack of motivation to exercise, getting fat, these are not just physical processes. They have an emotional component.

Personally, I’m a comfort eater. Or I would be, if I let myself. When deadlines gather menacingly around me, when bills pile up, when the kids are driving me nuts, I turn to food. A Portuguese custard tart; a cappuccino; a hamburger… with fries. And beer. Make that two beers. For the few, blissful, unthinking moments when I am stuffing my face with that stuff, I feel like I am in control. All of the shit that was pressing in on me, making me anxious and miserable, goes away and I am flooded with the pleasure of consumption. With a feeling of autonomy. I am the king and I will have my doughnut.

But of course I’m not in control. I am a slave to those anxieties and the appetites they inflame.

The Fitbit, the FuelBand, and all of the competing technologies which have broken out into the market of late, are really quite amazing triumphs of design and engineering. But they cannot reengineer the human soul, and it is in the soul where we often lose the battle against our appetites and desires.