On the one hand, fitness bands have never been more popular, and everyone (including your mom) seems to be wearing one. But is the fitness bubble about to burst? Dave and Rick wonder if the time to buy a fitness band is over.
Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners. They also appear in weekly episodes of Geek Vs Geek on video.
Rick: Allow me to paraphrase Douglas Adams: “Orbiting [the sun] at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think fitness bands are a pretty neat idea.” He originally referred to digital watches, of course, but the sentiment still applies: Fitness bands are silly, pointless gizmos destined for the same societal scrap heap as the cassette player and the PDA.
Dave: Since I know you make some rudimentary attempt to stay physically fit, I find this an interesting perspective. After all, fitness bands — you know, like the Fitbit, Basis, Nike Fuelband, and many others — are designed to track your physical activity and help you stay on track with walking, running, and similar activities. They also generally track your sleep, helping you stay healthy. But you, sir, think they’re fads and gimmicks.
Rick: Indeed they are. I’ll start with the supposed sleep monitoring, which basically amounts to the fitness band tracking how often you roll around at night. But what’s actionable about that information? “Hey, my fitness band says I’m not sleeping well!” Now what? Buy a new bed? Drink a bottle of whiskey before you lie down? Raw data that indicates how often I toss and turn is not worth wearing a plastic tether on my wrist all night. Likewise, if I’m sleeping just fine, why do I need the band at all? Device makers are trying to put one over on us: “Well, we stuck an accelerometer in there, might as pretend we can help people sleep better.”
Dave: Actually, you’re not being fair to the category of sleep monitoring, by focusing on limitations in products you’ve personally tried. Here’s the potential of sleep monitoring: A product called Sleep+ keeps track of how you sleep, as well as environmental factors in your bedroom. It can tell if you are sleeping poorly because it’s noisy (maybe there’s a barking dog next door) or perhaps light is streaming in the window, disturbing your sleep cycle. It makes appropriate recommendations based on those factors. That’s real, practical advice that can use to improve your sleep. But you’d never get a chance to try that out, since you have written off the entire product category. But the real crime here is you’re dismissing fitness bands that can help people start on the road to physical fitness — these devices act like workout partners that keep people honest and on track as they attempt to get in shape, stick to a workout routine, and lose weight.
Rick: Before we move on to fitness, let me save readers the trouble of ridiculing you: I need a product to tell me there’s a dog barking or there’s light coming in the window?! Guess what: I can find real, practical solutions to those problems without an accelerometer strapped to my wrist. Anyway, fitness: You actually hit the nail on the head by noting these bands are for people “starting on the road to physical fitness.” Me, I’ve exercised 3-4 times per week for the past 15 years. I don’t need a gizmo to track my steps. And even if I did, I suspect I’d quickly grow tired of needing to charge it, remember to wear it, and so on. Now, that’s just me. For couch slugs such as yourself, maybe a fitness band would help you overcome your entropy. Are you telling me that’s been your experience?
Dave: I can’t believe I need to circle back to sleep monitoring this far down the page, but you know what they say: A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can put its fitness monitor on. Yes, you may well need a product to tell you that there’s a barking dog — there are environmental factors that can cause fitful, unproductive sleep, and you’ll never know why you’re sleeping poorly because you don’t fully wake up. But anyway, back to fitness. These bands aren’t good just for people starting out, but they’re handy for folks trying to “break through” to the next level, step up to a new workout regimen, or just make sure they’re doing the minimum daily exercise they planned. You’ll commonly hear advice that you should take 10,000 steps a day. But since a typical non-exercising person only takes about 3,000 steps a day, you need to rely on your fitness band to reach your goal by taking long walks at lunch or in the evening. Without the band, you’re in the dark. And a new band called GymWatch actually helps you exercise properly since it can sense your body movement when lifting weights and doing other sorts of exercises.
Rick: Here’s the thing: I don’t object to the concept of the fitness band. Quite the opposite, I’m wholly in favor of anything that encourages people to exercise. But everyone I know who ever bought one ended up tossing it in a drawer after a couple months, because the rewards don’t outweigh the hassle factor. You can get exercise encouragement (and healthy-eating assistance) from any number of smartphone apps, no fitness band required. Ultimately, these things boil down to fancy step-counters, so why bother when you can buy an analog one for $10? And I’m surprised you didn’t mention the heart-monitoring features in products like the Basis. You’ve seen yourself that the data is inconsistent at best, and unless you have a medical need to know your heart rate, not especially useful.
Dave: No, that’s simply untrue; knowing your heart rate is extremely useful when you’re exercising, no medical condition required. I have had great luck with the heart rate monitor in the Basis, and the newer Basis is reportedly even more accurate and consistent. These devices give you a wealth of biometric information that you can’t get from a $10 pedometer, along with historical data that you can use to track progress over time. Sure, some people will stop using them, especially if the monitor they choose doesn’t really suit them. That’s why I suggest trying Lumoid, which is a service that lets you rent a slew of fitness bands at once, and only keep the one you want. You return the rest after you’ve made up your mind. Or, you can do what you do: sit on the couch and eat Cheetos.
Rick: I still say a dedicated fitness band isn’t worth wearing. Now, give me a decent smartwatch like the Pebble and endow it with some fitness features? Okay, I’m listening. (The Pebble was actually so endowed a few months ago, which is great.) I just think if you’re going to strap something to your wrist, it should tell time and notify you of text messages, not merely count your steps and Zzzzzs. Anyone who buys a band that’s only for fitness purposes should make some room in their junk drawer, ‘cause that’s where it’s going to end up. You haven’t really defended the category at all, and I know for a fact that retired your own Basis for reasons you haven’t ‘fessed up to. (On the flipside, I’ll fess up to having tried only a handful of fitness bands myself — but I’ve disliked all of them.)
Dave: In the interest of full transparency, I’ll admit that I switched from the Basis to the Pebble — for the reasons you list. Pebble now acts like a simple fitness band, but also is a smartwatch that sends me notifications and lets me keep my phone in my pocket. I miss the Basis, but the Pebble is a practical compromise. And I suspect I’ll switch to the Apple Watch later this year, or perhaps some other even more futuristic fitness band like the Healbe GoBe, which promises to track what you eat by measuring your blood, right through your skin. If it works — and that’s a huge if, because I am extremely dubious — it could revolutionize fitness bands as we know them. So no, good sir, fitness bands aren’t a fad or a gimmick. This party is just getting started.
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Photo credits: Demand Media, FitBit, Basis