Jawbone just went belly up. Fitbit is on life support. The Quantified Self movement is busy measuring the last days of the fitness tracker fad; its 10,000 steps of fame are up.
I was sad to learn of Jawbone's death, but not surprised. I took off my Up4 fitness tracker for the last time about three weeks ago. The clasp was annoying, and I left the charging cable in some hotel room and didn't have the time to order one before my next business trip. Once you break your habit of logging, checking, charging, and integrating the information with your other apps, it's over. The motivation you need to go back after a week off is beyond that of mere mortals. After two weeks -- well, after two weeks, you're starting from scratch.
Why consumer fitness trackers are nonsense
No one can argue with the idea that 10,000 steps per day is good for you. Just moving that many steps each day will offer some health benefits to all but the most physically fit. But the devil is in the details. There is a huge difference between casually walking 10,000 steps and purposefully walking 10,000 steps. If you want to get measurable health, lifestyle, and fitness benefits out of walking, you need to purposefully walk, not saunter.
Purposeful walking means walking about as fast as you can (without race walking or running). To do this, you need only one measuring device: your watch. Time spent is the key metric. To paraphrase (and butcher) Einstein, "Everything else fitness trackers count doesn't need to be counted."
Time is your friend
If you want to lose weight and feel great, set aside some time each day (30 minutes is good, 45 minutes is better, and an hour will absolutely show you results) and walk as fast as you can. If you're a believer in interval training, or if you're already in good shape and need more from your workout, run (don't jog) as fast as you can for 60 or 90 seconds at staggered intervals during your purposeful walk. You don't need to count steps; you just need to spend the time. Depending on your metabolism and about a zillion other factors, "time spent purposefully walking" is the only counting that counts. BTW, depending on your gait, four miles is about 8,500 steps and takes about an hour. You'll get the other 1,500 steps walking around your house to and from the refrigerator.
I got in early and got out
I began quantifying my life with the very first Fitbit, then Jawbone, then the Misfit Shine, the Basis B1, and so on. I evaluated every fitness tracker I could get my hands on. Each had its pros and cons, but the core features were practically identical: steps, sleep, and ultimately pulse. I was religious about it, entering absolutely everything that could be measured into a spreadsheet. I crafted various models that predicted how much weight I was likely to lose (or gain) based on calorie intake, activities tracked, resting burn, etc. It was an obsession.
Yes, I was crazy
I got so into the Quantified Self movement that I even started a blog called smartphonediet.info and did a TEDx Talk about how I lost 50 pounds tracking my steps and logging my calories. But in the end, the insanity was not sustainable.
The end of my quantified self
One day about two years ago, the Jawbone I was using died (Jawbones did that a lot; I think I've owned eight of them), and I didn't replace it. I did keep walking for an hour each morning with a little running mixed in. All was fine. Or so I thought. I was thinner than I had been in years, so even though my results were stagnant, I didn't think much about it.
A few months later, I purchased another fitness tracker to replace my dead Jawbone, but something was clearly wrong. Any deviation from my 1,500 calories per day and four miles of walking (as fast as I could with a little running thrown in) virtually guaranteed some marginal weight gain. My fitness tracker added no numeric insights and no measurements that would help me confirm or refute my hypothesis that my metabolism had reset to a new level.
Within four months, there was nothing I could do to not gain weight. My body had fully adjusted to the workout and the calorie count -- I was literally in a living hell, hungry all the time, forced to exercise even when I was too tired to do so. It was not sustainable in any way. Quantifying everything proved one undeniable fact: Once your body adjusts your metabolic rate to your daily routine, you are in for an impossibly difficult struggle with your own DNA. We are hard-wired to store energy under a wide variety of conditions. One doctor told me, "It's like fighting gravity." I'm there now. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, fitness trackers have no place in this battle.
You'll get there differently, but you'll get there
You don't now, nor did you ever, need a fitness tracker to lose weight. You need to increase your activity and reduce your caloric intake in a way that your body can adapt to. This needs to be done far more carefully than the 10,000-steps-per-day fitness tracker paradigm would have you believe.
RIP fitness trackers
Welcome to the ancient art of consuming appropriate quantities of nutrient-dense, fiber-rich, low-sugar foods. Without all of the quantified, gadgetized distractions, losing weight just got easy again.
Author's Note: This article is about consumer-grade fitness trackers. Purpose-built sports trackers and specialized training tools are clearly useful and may yield extraordinary results.