Does a Fitbit make you healthier and happier?

11 minutes to read
Paper
Iris Olde Hampsink
06/09/2021

Every morning before school, I make sure to get my morning coffee at Starbucks. I decide to pay for my coffee using the mobile app, for which they grant me a gold star. As I have now accumulated five stars, I am entitled to free refills! My day could not have started any better! To enjoy my coffee in peace, I decide to sit down and finish some of my homework. I quickly open the app Forest to be as productive as possible. After 25 minutes of hard work, the app tells me I have successfully planted a real-life tree somewhere in Africa. I have also earned a badge, which motivates me even more to be productive. After finishing my refill coffee, I stand up and get a notification from the app Fitbit: ‘’Make sure to reach your goal and walk 10.000 steps today!’’

Nowadays, this is what a normal morning looks like for many people. We are surrounded by all sorts of apps that make our daily lives easier and more enjoyable. Starbucks, Forest and Fitbit are all examples of gamified self-tracking apps, and are designed to encourage a certain behavior in a fun way. In this paper, I will discuss the app Fitbit, its aim and its game design elements. I will look at what makes Fitbit both successful and unsuccessful and how the app defines ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ behavior. Finally, I will discuss how Fitbit and its users contribute to a culture that normalizes surveillance, and the potential consequences of that.

Fitbit & its aim

Fitbit Inc., formerly known as Healthy Metrics Research Inc., is an American company established in 2007 by James Park and Eric Friedman (Fitbit Inc., 2017). Park and Friedman were the first to see the potential of sensors in small wearable devices. In 10 years, they turned Fitbit into a billion-dollar company that is now trying to monopolize the wearables market.

Fitbit wants its users to be as engaged as possible while using the app, as this is beneficial to the company.

Fitbit’s first fitness technology device was a clip-on tracker that could be attached to the user’s clothing, which tracked the user’s movement, sleep and calorie burn (Bora, 2018). In the years that followed, Fitbit became a lot more innovative and started creating smartwatches and wristbands as well. These devices measure a multitude of health parameters, such as daily steps, sleep quality, burned calories, water intake, heart rate, weight, nutrition and menstruation. To help users reach their individual fitness goals, Fitbit has created a broad product line, consisting of smartwatches and trackers such as the Fitbit Sense, Fitbit Versa 3 and the Fitbit Inspire 2. They also sell weighing scales, accessories, charging cables, syncing devices and services, such as Fitbit Premium and Fitbit Coach.

For users to view their progress and results, downloading the app is a must. As stated in the Google Play and Apple App Store, the app’s aim is to track basic statistics and keep its users motivated on their fitness journey. In this way, users can get a complete picture of their health and lead healthier, more active lives. Additionally, users can get motivated by the Fitbit community, challenge their family and friends and set goals for the future.

But of course, Fitbit also has other interests. Maximizing profitability is of great importance to the company, which shows that Fitbit’s aim also revolves around keeping the company going. Fitbit wants its users to be as engaged as possible while using the app, as this is beneficial to the company. To achieve this, Fitbit is made to be entertaining, pleasurable and motivating. The game design elements used in the app make exercising almost feel like a game, which is, of course, very enjoyable and motivating.

Gamified self-tracking

Before we delve into Fitbit’s game design elements, it is important that we understand why people use the app in the first place. Fitbit is a self-tracking app, which means that users can track and monitor certain parts of their life with Fitbit’s help. Users voluntarily give Fitbit data and information about their health, and in turn, Fitbit provides them with feedback. The app’s algorithm, which sorts, classifies and hierarchizes information (Granieri, 2014), provides users with statistics and graphs of their self-tracking. This tells them how they are doing. Users thus receive valuable insights about themselves, and they can use these insights to eventually improve their health and well-being.

Michel Foucault already discussed the idea of monitoring oneself in order to become self-aware and improve one’s life chances. The Care of the Self, put forward in the 1970s, tells us that in order to be a good citizen, we should take care of our health, reflect on our behavior and try to improve ourselves (Foucault, 2003). We should strive to be normal, and therefore, we should conform to certain societal norms. Nowadays, striving towards a positive change in behavior is still seen as important. And being able to self-track ourselves every day with the help of technology makes improving ourselves even easier than before.

As explained before, Fitbit’s technology helps humans improve themselves. It tells users how they are doing and whether they are healthy. Fitbit is easy to use, and its game design elements make fitness more enjoyable and even playful. The Care of the Self, as outlined by Foucault, is thus materialized through gamified self-tracking apps like Fitbit.

Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts (Deterding, Khaled, Dixon, & Nacke, 2011). To nudge users to engage in physical activity, and thus to improve themselves, Fitbit makes use of quite a few game design elements. Gamification features like badges, goals, challenges, trophies and leaderboards are used to turn exercising into a leisure activity which makes healthy living more enjoyable and playful.  

First, badges are used to reward users when they have achieved certain goals (see Figure 1). These goals vary from steps taken to floors climbed to weight loss (Kosecki, 2017). Users’ hard work thus gets recognized and rewarded by the app. Getting a badge for losing 5, 10, 20 or 25 pounds is considered to be very motivating, and helps users recognize and celebrate even their smallest victories.

Figure 1. Examples of badges that can be earned for losing weight.

Second, challenges are deeply embedded in the app’s infrastructure, and push users to be as physically active as possible. When completing a fitness challenge, users are rewarded with badges or scores that get them on the leaderboard. Sometimes, users can even get featured on virtual podiums. These challenges, such as the Get Fit Bingo, All for One, Goal Day, Daily Showdown, Weekend Warrior or Workweek Hustle, involve steps taken, number of active minutes or distance covered. For Custom Challenges, users themselves can choose if the focus will be on steps, active minutes or distance.

By only offering users a limited number of health parameters, Fitbit emphasizes that only these parameters are important when taking care of one’s body or health.

As you may have guessed, the goal of Get Fit Bingo (see Figure 2) is to be the first to bingo. Users can flip a bingo tile if they complete the action connected to it. The actions all have to do with the quantity of steps, active minutes or distance. Once a winning pattern is formed, the user hits bingo. The goal is thus to engage in as much physical activity as possible, as this will enable users to flip their tiles and win. Throughout the challenge, which can take up to 30 days, players can access the leaderboard to see how they are doing. To encourage users to keep on playing, Fitbit offers them incentives in the form of bonus tiles. These bonus tiles include a free flip of one of the tiles without completing an activity or a free swap of any two tiles, which may nudge users to exercise. Tedious physical activity is thus transformed into a playful and social game where winning is rewarding.

Figure 2. Examples from the Get Fit Bingo challenge. From left to right: the main dashboard, a bonus and the leaderboard.

Some challenges, such as Goal Day, Daily Showdown, Weekend Warrior and Workweek Hustle work best for ‘deadline-driven steppers’, as they all have to do with getting the highest step count (Mulgannon, 2017). Daily Showdown challenges participants to take as much steps in a single day as they can, as the player with the highest step count wins. Weekend Warrior works the same, but this challenge can only be completed during the weekend. Workweek Hustle focuses on taking the most steps between Monday and Friday. Upon completion, users can win trophies (see Figure 3) that eventually push them to do better and beat their personal records. This means that users can win the same trophy multiple times, which encourages them to be as active as possible.

Figure 3. A trophy that can be won by getting first place in the Workweek Hustle challenge.

Problems?

Even though these game design elements can potentially encourage users to successfully improve themselves, sometimes users forget the actual aim of the app and are more focused on winning the game. This is problematic. The existence of bonus tiles implies that users do not have to engage in any physical activity to progress in the game. Because of this, users might think that completing the game is more important than exercising. Additionally, multiple articles have discussed Fitbit’s problem with cheating. Some users use their dogs or machines to get tons of steps. This proves that winning is sometimes seen as the primary reason for using the app, instead of improving one’s health.

When they created the app, Fitbit’s developers had certain ideas about how they would like users to use their platform. These ideas influence the user’s activity and behavior on the app, which is why Fitbit can be described as a mediator instead of an intermediary (van Dijck, 2013). Because of how visible and prominent the gamification features are on the app, Fitbit is not being used in the ‘right’ way. The app’s intended purpose is getting users to improve their health in a fun way, using game design elements. However, some users are more interested in winning than in actually getting fit. Therefore, it can be concluded that Fitbit’s Care of the Self, materialized through gamification, is only partly successful.

What users do not realize, however, is that they are voluntarily contributing to a culture that normalizes participatory surveillance.

Fitbit’s definition of a ‘healthy’ person should also be a point of discussion, as the fitness mediator plays a big role in shaping users’ behavior and physical activity. By only offering users a limited number of health parameters, such as daily steps, sleep quality, burned calories, water intake, heart rate, weight, nutrition and menstruation, Fitbit emphasizes that only these parameters are important when taking care of one’s body or health. Additionally, Fitbit encourages its users to walk at least 10.000 steps a day. The app thus clearly has ideas about what constitutes being ‘healthy’. However, not everyone can meet Fitbit’s criteria.

Participatory surveillance

Even though Fitbit has some problems that need fixing, most of its users still greatly enjoy using the app to improve their fitness in a fun way. What they do not realize, however, is that they are voluntarily contributing to a culture that normalizes participatory surveillance.

When humans think of surveillance, they often think of spies, creeps or the secret service. They do not think it is part of everyday life. However, gamified self-tracking apps like Fitbit are rooted in surveillance. Surveillance can be described as any focused attention to personal details for the purpose of influence, management or control (Lyon, 2007). Fitbit tracks voluntarily given information that varies from number of steps walked to information about headaches or sleep quality. The app pays close attention to and collects information about its users to influence and change their behavior.

Fitbit’s surveillance can be described as participatory surveillance or willing self-surveillance, as users voluntarily provide the app with personal information in order to improve their well-being (Whitson, 2013). Users are not forced to participate, and even enjoy using the app. Game design elements, such as badges or leaderboards, make exercising fun and pleasurable and work as incentives for staying motivated.

Participatory surveillance is thus based on pleasure and fun. Fitbit’s users see no harm in exposing all of their personal information. However, maybe they should care, as their privacy is on the line. Van Dijck (2013) points out that users often pay with their personal data to access a platform’s services. When registering for Fitbit, users are already required to provide their full name, e-mail address, gender, height and weight. This data, and users’ self-tracking data, can possibly all get sold to third parties for advertising purposes (Whitson, 2013). In the future, Fitbit’s data about its users’ health could even end up with insurance companies or governments. This means that, based on Fitbit’s data, unhealthy individuals could get identified. And who knows, maybe these individuals will be denied access to a hospital bed when things get rough. Fully participating in this online culture of gamified self-tracking can thus have daunting consequences.

Final thoughts 

In this paper, I have presented a short evaluation of the app Fitbit. It is now clear that Fitbit’s game design elements and self-tracking possibilities materialize Michel Foucault’s Care of the Self. Fitbit’s users find using the app pleasurable, motivating and fun. The badges, trophies and leaderboards keep Fitbit’s users engaged and serve as incentives to be as active as possible. The challenges almost turn exercising into a playful and social game, where winning is rewarding.

Sometimes, users see winning as more important than staying fit. This proves that Fitbit’s gamification is not always successful, and that it can sometimes even undermine the app’s aim and purpose. Fitbit’s users should be critical of this. How the app defines ‘healthy’ behavior should also be a point of discussion, as users are constrained by Fitbit’s design.

These two problems, however, should be the least of users’ concerns. The future of big data business may create problems for those who fully participate in the online culture of gamified self-tracking. A world that is totally surveilled, in all aspects of life, sounds terrifying.

Maybe downloading Fitbit will not make us happier after all.

References 

Bora, C. (2018, December 18). The Fitbit Story – How It Scripted Wearable Tech’s Biggest Success Story. TechStory.

Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Dixon, D., & Nacke, L. (2011). Gamification: Toward a Definition. CHI 2011 Workshop Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Game Contexts, 1-4.

van Dijck, J. (2013). Culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fitbit Inc. (2017). Investor FAQ.

Foucault, M. (2003). In Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975 . London: Verso.

Granieri, G. (2014, April 30). Algorithmic culture. “Culture now has two audiences: people and machines”.  Medium.

Kosecki, D. (2017, July 12). Presenting the Official List of Fitbit Badges. How Many Do You Have?

Lyon, D. (2007). In Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Oxford: Polity Press.

Mulgannon, C. (2017, May 30). Ask Fitbit: How Can I Challenge My Friends in the Fitbit App?

Whitson, J. R. (2013). Gaming the Quantified Self. Surveillance & Society 11 (1/1), 163-176.