How my body rejected activity trackers and the 'quantified self'

After living with activity trackers meant to help him stay fit, columnist Danny Sullivan finds "big data" didn't translate into more motivation.

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
Danny Sullivan
6 min read
One person, four trackers. On the wrist, the Jawbone Up and Nike FuelBand. On the upper arm, the BodyMedia Fit, with a Fitbit One clipped next to it. The BodyMedia is shown lower than normally worn, for illustrative purposes. Same, too, for the Fitbit. It's normally worn clipped to the waist.

Earlier this year, I set out on a grand journey. I tested several activity trackers all at once, to decide which was the best in accuracy and in motivating me to lose a few pounds. Today, they sit unused on my desk. And I weigh pretty much the same.

What happened? For one, perhaps no one should try to use four activity trackers at the same time. Trying to stay on top of how they all compared ended up feeling like exercise itself.

But ultimately, I perhaps lost my motivation to be motivated by these devices by knowing too much about them. Realizing that three of them were missing out on some of my exercise made me not want to bother with them tracking anything at all.

Assuming they could "quantify" me and my activity accurately -- as my fourth device, the BodyMedia Fit seemed to do, I found I had no interest in turning to my smartphone or my computer to try and churn through the data, not for the daily update and "nudge" that I needed.

Clearly, many people do feel motivated by these gadgets. And, as I always say, there's no "wrong" device: what works for you, works for you. But here's my story on how I found myself let down by my activity trackers.

The candidates
My test involved four devices, which you'll find listed below. Actually, there were five, because the Fitbit Flex came out during my test, so I moved to that from the Fitbit One. The links below will give you my deep-dive on each of these:

My goal in the test was to figure out which fitness tracker really seemed to do the best job in counting my activity. I paddleboard. I Rollerblade. I do many nonwalking activities that had made me dubious about whether activity devices would track them well.

BodyMedia Fit: The accuracy winner, but not fun to wear
Without question, the BodyMedia Fit did the best job of all the devices I tried. With sensors to measure how much you sweat, along with your skin temperature, it consistently tracked all my activities better than the others.

BodyMedia Fit

The downside was the Fit wasn't as comfortable to wear as any of the other devices. Future versions might improve this (as my write-up of the Fit covers in more detail). The Fit also lacked an immediate feedback mechanism, to keep me motivated. How was I doing on a particular day? To know, I had to use my computer or smartphone.

Ultimately, I found the Fit handy for use on a case-by-case basis. Now I have a better idea what I burn doing certain activities. If I do an extended exercise, I might wear it to know what I burned over that period. It's also an ideal companion for the other devices that allow for manual logging of exercise. If they're not capturing everything, the Fit lets you know better what to add. Assuming, of course, you want to invest in two devices!

Jawbone Up: Looks sharp, doesn't track well
I felt the most attractive of the devices was the Jawbone Up. I also liked how it tries to make staying active a more social experience. I felt this feature worked better than similar offerings from Nike or Fitbit. But the letdown for me was that of the four, it tended to track my activity the worst.

Jawbone Up

On the plus side, the Up makes it really easy to supplement what it might miss with manual recording. However, so does the Fitbit. And the Fitbit comes with a visible feedback indicator that, to me, gave it the edge over the Up.

Fitbit Flex: Good tracking, shame about the on-device indicators
Having tried both the Fitbit Flex and the Fitbit One, I appreciated that the Flex seemed to capture some of my nonstep activity better. As with the Up, I was also able to supplement what it didn't capture well, if I wanted.

Fitbit Flex, with lights that show progress to daily goal

What I missed on the Flex was the more detailed "stats" display that the One provided. Sure, it's nice to be able to tap and see whether I'm closing in on my goal using the status lights. But I wanted a bit more. Numbers, not lights.

Nike FuelBand: Beautiful display, but misses too much
Of all the devices, the Nike FuelBand is the one I still want to love the most. Right there on my wrist is a readout of my activity, from steps to calories to whether I'm closing in on my daily "Fuel" goal.

Nike FuelBand, which shows various stats when you push a button on the band

I found that especially useful because, while all these devices will let you go back and analyze your activity, it was that daily motivation that I craved. Have I hit it? Am I close?

The Nike FuelBand, more than the others, made me want to go that extra bit if I was short of my goal, because I could tell exactly how much more I needed, instantly. Yes, I found myself pacing around the house before bedtime just to see that "Goal" light up.

But the FuelBand misses some activities and provides no way to supplement for this. I found myself almost resentful of it. "You're not going to track that two-hour paddleboard as activity? Fine. I'm not going to do anything!"

I dearly hope Nike will fix this in the future, either with a new model or a way to upgrade existing ones. That might even get me to start wearing it again.

Food logging works! But what a pain
All the devices but the Nike will allow you to log your food. And logging my food, perhaps more than tracking my activity, seemed to help me lose about five pounds within my first two weeks of using the devices.

Food logging with the Jawbone Up

The problem was that food logging fell apart any time I was eating out, such as on a trip. How many calories in that hamburger? Who really knows? It can vary widely for so many reasons. And at a cocktail reception, I wasn't stopping to jot down the type of cheese I ate, how many pieces, and what crackers I had with it.

Maybe that's why food logging worked so well for me, at first. It was such a pain that I just didn't want to eat at all.

What I'd love is a device that really could accurately track what I consume, and translate that into calories. Maybe this new Countertop app combined with the Prep Pad really will do that. But I kind of doubt it.

The good news is that if you're a believer in food logging, you don't need an activity tracker to do it. There are plenty of free and low-cost apps out there to help you.

My dream activity tracker and "little data"
If I could combine the accuracy of the BodyMedia Fit with the display and design of the Nike FuelBand, I'd be more interested in a return to the "quantified self" world, where all my activity is logged. It would give me both accuracy and an instant look at how I was doing.

That's because, in the end, it wasn't about having "big data" about my body, that I could analyze over weeks, months, or years. Sure, that's interesting. But what I could actually act on was having "little data," right on my wrist. Was I active today? How much more do I need to do to reach my goal? That was far more useful to me than trend charts.

Again, for those who use such devices, all the best. Whatever gets you motivated -- an app, a tracker, or just yourself -- it's all good.