Why do some people wear a Fitbit?

I was thinking back to a conference that took place some time ago on the theme of data capture, in particular to the presentations on wearable physical activity devices or trackers [1]. These were still fairly new at the time and I quickly picked up that the people in the audience, most of whom were much younger than me, were quite sniffy about them. This contrasted with their enthusiasm for hearing more about music streaming. We talked about this over coffee and one participant mentioned his disappointment that his partner would only listen to the same songs again and again on Spotify rather than accessing their Daily Mix (a collection designed to extend your listening based on what you had already accessed). I sympathised. In contrast there was not much talk about activity trackers; they were not cool and they were not going to take off.

Well, I don’t think trackers have turned out to be cool but they have slowly taken off, at least among certain social groups, though nothing like to the same degree as social media [2].  But it remains easier to see the limitations of the wearable devices than their advantages [3]. An obvious constraint on take-up is that users have to invest in hardware (wearable devices) to get the full benefit and this costs money and is another piece of kit you need to look after. There are doubts too about the accuracy of trackers and concerns over privacy and sharing of data.  Activity loggers can play into people’s anxiety about health and advertising can take the form of  gender stereotyping.  Ceaseless logging of physical activity can become an end in itself so that you end up gaming the system, e.g choosing your terrain carefully to increase step count. For that matter you can cheat outright – for example by attaching the device to a bike or dog! The key point, however, is that if you are comfortable about your fitness level the devices serve no real purpose; if you are naturally fairly active you just get on with it, you don’t need to measure what you are doing. This is even more the case when it comes to logging sleep activity. Those who sleep well don’t talk about it, record it or even think about it, they just do it.  In fact were they to monitor sleep they might well become more self-conscious and disrupt what was working perfectly for them in the first place.

So why trackers? They can help users who have a special need to focus on physical activity and this seems to be particularly the case as you get older and are aware of becoming less active. The evidence is fairly slim, surprisingly these are still early days in research of activity logging [4], but as Ridgers et al. (2016) put it ‘there are some preliminary data to suggest these devices may have the potential to increase activity levels through self-monitoring and goal setting in the short term’. This is not a ringing endorsement but sounds about right to me.

Aside from large scale quantitative work, we also need to know more about the experiences of wearing these devices. Again there are some papers often based on what particular types of wearer get out of it, e.g. those recovering from serious illness, using activity as part of weight reduction programme, older people. The key point made by Jarrahi et al (2018) is an obvious one, but worth repeating: if you are disposed to see wearable devices as motivating then you will find them to be, if not forget it.

Noticing gaps in the literature I spoke to people I knew who used activity trackers and asked them for their opinions. They had found the devices generally useful as they helped with focusing on activity levels. Users had particular goals in terms of improving fitness or weight watching so that if they noticed their step count was falling they would deliberately do something about it, i.e. go for a run or walk. Some spoke of friendly competition with others. The devices were worthwhile though their usefulness was linked to the short term goals they had set themselves, future use was less clear.

I don’t wear an activity tracker. However, I did once have a Garmin watch which I used for a while for tracking runs. I got some satisfaction from knowing I was improving my speed and I liked to check that I was pacing myself evenly. I got out of the habit of using the device when, as age was catching up on me, my times were getting longer rather than shorter. Of course logging might be most useful when performance is dropping but I felt knowledge of my own tail-off was only go to depress me. I also found charging the device to be a faff and worried about the power running out. At one point I was disappointed about a run because the battery had discharged half-way through and I would not get a full reading to download. This was ridiculous. Why did I need to measure it to believe I had done it and enjoyed it? However, even if I no longer use my watch, I still line up with other runners after a weekly Park Run to get my time recorded [5]. We clearly have no need to do this, so why do we do it? I found some comments by Engeström [6] useful here. Drawing on Vygotsky and Russian social constructivism, Engeström sees exercising agency (i.e. getting to do what we would know we want to do or must) as a two fold process: first design it and then do it (the execution phase). He gave the example of an alarm clock. Finding the will to get up earlier is not easy. The alarm clock helps reminds us that we must do it. However, an alarm set by someone else would not work, we need to have planned for its use, i.e. we calculate what time we need to get up and set the alarm accordingly. In fact very often the planning is enough and we wake up any way before or as the alarm goes off. I think tools to measure physical activity work in a similar way. We design the use of the tool, i.e. we personalise the device with our details, we look at captured data and we make judgments about what we need to do, and having designed it we feel encouraged to do it. We are using the device to put into effect an otherwise vague intention to take more exercise; the device is helping us do it. I don’t want to go out and buy a tracker or Smart watch but I am not as dismissive of them as my fellow conference participants once were. And I will still queue to log my time at Park Run even if the data are only pointing in one direction.

[1] Wearable devices will capture data on movement, including how far one has moved and how many steps completed. They will also do a calorie used count and may monitor heart rate, sleep length and sleep activity. Waterproof devices will do distance and strokes when swimming. Data can be shared by users.  Probably the best known companies for producing wearable devices are Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei and Withings. A smart watch is not dedicated to physical activity but will include physical activity tracking. A smart phone App such as Map My Fitness can log runs,  but does less than a wearable device.

[2] Estimates of numbers of users are in the tens of millions, e.g. 30 million estimated active Fitbit users and 55 millions Apple watch wearers, 20 million Map My Fitness users, These are large numbers but not in the same league as, say, numbers of Facebook users.

[3] There are several contributions on trackers and other devices to ‘The Conversation’ which are fairly sceptical of their value, e.g.:

Siek, K. (2020) Why fitness trackers may not give you all the ‘credit’ you hoped for [online]


Duus, R. and Cooray, M. (2015) How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers


Kerner, C., Quennerstedt, C. and Goodyear, V. (2017) Young people oppose Fitbits in schools [online]


[4] There are several systematic reviews, e.g. Ridgers et al. (2016) and Shin et al. (2019), with most concluding that there is not much to systematically review in the first place.

[5] Park run is a free 5km run held in many parks in UK [https://www.parkrun.org.uk] and now around the world.

[6] Engeström’s key example concerns ‘cheating slips’ used by students. These are notes which student might access during an exam but Engeström argues it is the making of the notes rather than the access to them that make them effective.


Engeström, Y. (2006). Development, movement and agency: Breaking away into mycorrhizae activities. In K. Yamazumi (Ed.)  Building Activity Theory In Practice: Toward The Next Generation. Osaka: Center for Human Activity Theory, Kansai University. (CHAT Technical Reports #1).

Jarrahi, M., Gafinowitz, N. & Shin, G. (2018) Activity trackers, prior motivation, and perceived informational and motivational affordances. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 22, 433–448.

Ridgers, N., McNarry, M. and Mackintosh, K. (2016) Feasibility and effectiveness of using wearable activity trackers in youth: a systematic review.  JMIR mhealth and uHealth 4, 4: e129.

Shin, G., Jarrahi, M.H., Fei, Y., Karami, A., Gafinowitz, N., Byun, A. and Lu, X. (2019) Wearable activity trackers, accuracy, adoption, acceptance and health impact: a systematic literature review. Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 93: p.103153.





Social Science and Difficulties With Theory

It is difficult for those not following the field to get the importance given to theory in social research; researchers are continually asked to be theoretical and to align themselves with a position of some sort or another. To be theoretical is to lift your research to a ‘higher plane’; to deal with the world not just as it presents itself but to step back and offer an explanation as to how and why things happen as they do. Theory allows us to move from observations (for example we might see that young people are more likely to vote for anti-establishment parties) towards an explanation (for example we might propose a theory of behaviour that says that those with less of a stake in a system are more likely to want to change it; a theory of maturation that says part of growing up is to experience a sense of exuberance and an enhanced sense of agency; a theory of association that says young people are adept at creating counter cultural ‘spaces’ and so on). It is theory which moves social science into a wider narrative about the way the world works; for doctoral students it is always a damning put down if told ‘yes your thesis is very good but where is the theory?’.

But are we over rating ‘theory’? Here it is worth remembering that in everyday conversation someone described as ‘theoretical’ may lead of us think of someone who is obsessed by abstraction, someone who follows what the theory says and ignores what is in front of them. There is a further put down of theory: it often dresses up in complicated ways something that is quite easy to understand. Probably apocryphal, but there is a anecdote about an earnest young intellectual in the 1930’s who is excitedly explaining to an unemployed shipyard worker that Marx had written a book with a theory to explain that the capitalist system was structurally designed to impoverish the worker. The response was ‘you mean someone wrote a whole book about that?’.

At this point I should say that I like reading and writing about theories and much more than I ever did in the past. I still however feel that there is something unbearably smug about some ‘theoreticians’ as shown in the disdain expressed for the ‘merely descriptive social research’. I remember how my horizons expanded through reading the classics of participant observation (for example communities studies associated with the Chicago School [1]) and I can imagine how they would be put down by some theorists today. I remember too a tutor who had pinned up on his door a piece from Goethe along the lines that ‘description was the richest form of explanation’ [2], this I found oddly inspiring and led me into an interest in phenomenology. A descriptive account of a phenomenon (natural or social) is explanatory [3].

So why have my feeling about theory changed? In part it is the realisation that in looking at a theory you don’t have to buy into the whole package, it is tempting to do so but you do not need to. Indeed there is rarely a whole package to buy into. If you look at any of the key thinkers you can find differences of emphasis in their work depending on what they were trying to address at the time, and in any case you can only read them with a contemporary purpose in mind, very often a purpose theorists could not have envisaged when they were first putting their ideas forward. When all is said is and done a theory is ‘simply’ a lens on something, it illuminates what is happening and, in so doing, it necessarily closes off other perspectives on the problem. The pleasure of using theory is in describing the view.

My thoughts about theory were prompted recently by reading a paper by Sue Timmis on cultural historical activity theory or CHAT [4] For those interested CHAT was a theory which grew out of social constructivist theory of Vygotsky and particularly developed by Engerström, Cole and others [5]. Vygotsky (1978) can be understood as someone who helped expand our focus on learning from what was happening ‘in the head of the individual learner’ to the wider world of tools, artefacts and people that surround the learner and with which they can and do engage. This perspective was further extended into a wider Activity System covering not only subject (the person doing), the object (the purpose of what the person was doing), outcomes (what happens), tools and artefacts (which include both physical and cultural tools such as language and signs) but also the context in which the activity is taking place, the rules, community and division of labour by and within which people work and share their work. This Activity System or CHAT has often been presented as a set of triangles within triangles – these have been endlessly reproduced but see for example go to Wikipedia to see examples http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural-Historical_Activity_Theory_(CHAT)

The paper by Timmis is very good and takes you through the different ‘waves’ of CHAT. She highlights the problems of over interpreting ‘the triangles’ and argues that the point of CHAT is not simply to show that while we are all constrained by what is culturally and physical available to us we should notice the tensions and contradictions within a system and the opportunities for change.

I thoroughly enjoyed the paper but did not end up convinced by CHAT and I wondered why not? In part I cannot get out of my head all those wretched triangles – it is all very well for flexible interpreters of CHAT to point out that the triangles were only introduced to draw your attention to key issues but, once lodged in your mind, they rigidly frame the way you look at a case. This dominance is reinforced as the framework is so all encompassing it is practically impossible to think of a situation in which it could not be applied – in other words if you look for an Activity System you will find it. The second problem, a related one, is that the holistic picture that CHAT provides might not be as valuable as it appears. It seems to me that theories work best by offering distinctive perspectives on one thing or another, rather than trying to get to grips with the whole picture. The pleasure in social science is flipping between perspectives, for example switching between an account of the small scale and local to one which deals with the large scale and structural. In my, albeit limited, experience those using CHAT are trying to capture both the small and the large picture at the same time and end up not saying as much as they could either about the wider structural issues which constrain us or about our exercise of agency. Anyway make your own mind up, and particularly if interested in educational technology, I recommend the Timmis paper.

[1] I am thinking of classics such as Louis Wirth (1928) The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928) and William Whyte (1943) Street Corner Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] For example see From Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc, editors. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998] – I was able to access this online.

[3] In respect to social research, see for example notes on ‘thick description’ in Geertz, C. (1972) Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, Daedalus, 101, 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture – again I was able to access this online.

[4] Timmis, S. (2014). The dialectical potential of Cultural Historical Activity Theory for researching sustainable CSCL practices. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 9(1), 7-32.

[5] Cole, M., & Engerström, Y. (1993). A cultural-historic approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.