12 July 2015

Do Fitness Trackers Work? (Very Nearly) 23 Months the Misfit Shine

Very nearly two years ago I received a Misfit Shine, a rather beautiful fitness tracker from Misfit Wearables. The Shine resulted from a highly successful Indiegogo project, and I have written about it previously here and here.

The Misfit Shine
The Misfit Shine

Nearly two years on, my Shine has just died, so I thought I’d write up some thoughts on fitness tracking in general, and the Shine in particular, ith the benefit of nearly two years of use.

Can Fitness Trackers Change Behaviour? Do Fitness Trackers Change Behaviour?

Everything I read about fitness trackers suggests they have a high abandonment rate and that many people find they lose motivation to move more after the first few weeks of novelty wear off. That hasn’t been the case for me. My experience is that the Shine has been extremely effective at making me move more (primarily, walk more), and that effect has increased over time. I’m pretty convinced that whether it works depends primarily on whether the user takes the goal seriously or not.

I left the goal at the default 1,000 points a day. This seems to equate almost exactly to 10,000 steps a day, which is the widely endorsed minimum amount people should walk (e.g. NHS, Horizon). While I’m not the most active person, I always thought I walked quite a lot. Nevertheless, for the first week or two, I quite often found that by the middle of the evening I wasn’t all that close to 1,000 points, and clearly wouldn’t hit the goal without specific effort. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising: when I got the Shine, I worked from home (behind a computer) and didn’t have any need to move more than 2,000–3,000 steps a day. But I was convinced that 10,000 steps a day is a pretty small amount for a human to move, and that if I was failing to reach that, this was probably a very bad thing. So whenever it looked as if I would miss the target, I’d go for a walk. sometimes for as long as an hour if it had been a particularly indolent day. As a result, I hit the minimum the vast majority of days, and probably averaged about 100,000 steps per week.

Conclusion 1: It can work, and for me it did work. My behaviour clearly changed as desired: I started hitting 10,000 steps or more very nearly every day. The key, for me, was a combination of (1) measuring it (2) believing it mattered (3) being committed to doing something about it if it looked as if I was going to miss on any day.

Take the Long Way Home: Changing the Objective Function

There’s a rather lovely story about a visit to London by Gandhi. He was escorted by a bright young man from the Foreign Office who said to the mahatma:

“If we go through this way we will save a minute”,

to which Ghandi replied

“But what then, young man, will we do with the minute?”

In the modern world, it seems we are all constantly trying to save time. We cut corners, take short-cuts, avoid traffic lights, eat fast food, attempt vainly attempt to multi-task; we “cut to the chase”, avoid “paralysis by analysis”, snd msgs in ncmprhnsbl txt-spk, use TLAs (and xTLAs) and increasingly compress our thoughts to 140-character tweets. And we do these things largely unthinkingly, literally without even being aware of them in most cases. Not everyone does it, of course: there is the slow food movement, and a woman I knew slightly once said that she liked travelling “as far a possible, as slowly as possible”, which was such as strikingly unusual formulation that I still remember it (and her) a quarter of a century later. But still …

When I started measuring my movement, I found myself repeatedly thinking something I suspect I’d never thought previously: rather than taking the quickest route, I could take a long route to wherever I was going. (I guess I should have taken Supertramp’s advice sooner.) Without dwelling on it too much, I think this is fascinating. In effect, by “quantifying myself”, as the lingo has it, I changed my subconscious objective function from “minimizing time” to “maximizing walking”; or more accurately, not—obviously—maximizing walking, but at least selecting from among the reasonable alternative routes the one with the most walking rather than the least.

Real-Time Information and Staying Ahead of the Bus

During the time I had the Shine, I changed from working alone, from home, to employing a couple of people and working in an office in Edinburgh. I live about 8 miles south of the centre, so walking in isn’t a practical option, so I got a bus pass. There’s an excellent bus service from near my house to near the office (the Lothian 31/X31), so I use that. I don’t really mind the 30–40 minutes on the bus, not least because I use it mostly to continue development of Miró, which I continue (only half faceciously) to call “the world’s only analytics package developed primarily on public transport”. For the first few weeks, I boarded the bus at the nearest stop to my house, and disembarked at the last stop on North Bridge; the stop in front of Waverley Station is probably closer, but the time the bus waits at the lights to turn onto Princes Street means that I probably reduce my overall travel time by walking from North Bridge, “saving time”, like a good little human optimizer.

Then things then changed.

I’m not a very patient person. In fact, I’m an extremely impatient person. And I hate waiting for buses. Happily, however, a few years ago Lothian Buses introduced a real-time bus tracking information service, with digital displays at some bus stops and phone apps that give pretty reliable information about the time to the next bus. In the centre of Edinburgh, bus stops are remarkably close together. The combination of the reliability of the real-time bus information and the closeness of stops means that my rule-of-thumb is that if there’s more than 3 minutes to go until the bus is due, I can safely walk to the next stop and still catch the same bus. So I do. There’s a double win here: I avoid the mind-numbing tedium of waiting for a bus and I walk more, with no cost at all in terms of my total journey time (including waiting).

But there’s more. It turns out that between North Bridge, where I get on the bus to go home, and Lady Road, about 2 further south, the average bus speed is less than twice my walking speed. As a result, if I get to the bus stop and it shows 10 minutes till the next bus is due, I can probably walk for at least 20 minutes, often more, until the bus catches me. In fact, I often make it all the way to Lady Road without the bus catching me, and I’ve yet to miss a bus as a result of this tactic. (Slightly disconcertingly, in the centre, the bus speed is not always faster than walking, so its far from uncommon for the time indicated at each bus stop I pass to increase as I march south for the first few stops.)

I find this remarkably interesting too. For my whole life, without really thinking about it, I’ve effectively optimized for “walking as little as possible” when using buses. But now, simply by consiously changing this approach to trying to get home “as fast as possible”, but qualifying this by saying “and walk as much as is consistent with that”, my activity has changed almost beyond recognition. Small nudges, indeed (a book, I should say, I haven’t read).

Don’t Walk; Walk

Walk - Don't Walk Lights - Washington DC

The third change in my behaviour I’ve observed since getting the Shine has been to start getting off the bus earlier, particularly on the way into work. Unlike walking ahead of the bus and letting it catch up, this isn’t “free”: the result is that I get into the office slightly later than I otherwise would. (And get wetter, if it’s raining.) But even here, it isn’t as bad as it seems. I tend to get off around the Queen’s Hall, and walk to Forth Street, which gives me a 1.3 mile walk rather than a 0.5 mile walk, so I that probably costs me 12 or 13 minutes gross. But, as mentioned before, the bus doesn’t go that much faster than walking pace in town. So in fact, I think I probably only add about 5 minutes to my journey by getting off nearly a mile earlier.

Behaviour Changed

Overall, over the 23 months for which I used the Shine, I made my daily goal very nearly 100% of the time. I don’t have the full stats for the two years, but I had a number of runs of 60–90 consecutive days making the goal, frequently hit 150% to 200% of the daily target, and would often go weeks at a time without dropping below 150% of target. Of course, your mileage may vary (literally!)

Conclusion: To Replace or Not To Replace

For me, there’s no question the Misfit Shine worked. It is a beautiful, minimalist, but very effective step counter. By caring about achieving the (admittedly modest) goal I set, it definitely succeeded in getting me to move significantly more than I had been doing. I’m sure lots of other fitness trackers would have performed similarly, though it helped that the Shine is attractive to wear, has excellent software and is backed by a company whose people are consistently helpful. It’s not a perfect device by any means. Among its weaknesses, it is very losable, and I’m not convinced it’s accurate for tracking other activities like cycling and swimming. Syncronization with the phone was always a hit-and-miss process for me, though this was more annoying in the early days, when you had to sync manually, than more recently, since they updated the app to sync in the background periodically. (Synchronization uses Bluetooth Low Energy, and I guess that is made more difficult by the Shine’s very elegant, nearly all-metal case.) Despite these small niggles, the Shine is excellent at its primary function.

So will I replace the Shine? For sure. While I am confident many of the changes in behaviour it has facilitated would persist even without a tracker, at least for a while, I am also convinced that measurement makes a difference, and that without that quantitative reckoning I would gradually slide back into less activity.

In this case, however, I probably won’t replace it with another Shine. Instead, I suspect I’ll now get an Apple Watch. This is not a particularly easy decision. Most of what I read and hear about the Apple Watch is that people think it is beautiful but rather lacking in functionality. My perspective is almost exactly the reverse. I have little doubt I will love the functionality: the fitness tracking alone will be fantastic, occasional taptic notifications will be a boon, and I like the idea of Apple Pay. But I find the Watch physically ugly—thick, large, square, asymmetrical—what was Jony thinking with the positioning of that “digital crown”?—and vacuously blank except when raised. Until now, I’ve worn a traditional watch on my left wrist and the Shine on my right wrist. There is obviously appeal to going to a single device, and the total functionality of the Apple Watch is so far in advance of that of the traditional-watch-plus-Shine combination that it’s not even a fair fight. So I think I will swallow my aesthetic objections and try the Watch. But if it disappoints, or it turns out that I can’t stand the look or bulk of the Apple Watch, I’ll be straight onto Misfit, ordering a new Shine.


Walk - Don’t Walk Lights - Washington DC, by Glyn Low, GlynLowe.com, Some rights reserved

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