The Fitbit Phenomenon

As the clock turns to 3 o’clock, Mariel Porfido, Brian Apfel, and Amanda Greco all look down at their inconspicuously placed Fitbits to gauge their daily progress towards 10,000 steps.

A college student, an admissions counselor, and an athletic trainer, respectively, are all at different points in their lives. They all joined in on the fitness trend for various personal reasons, but the end goal is the same: 10,000 steps a day to improve their health.

A year ago, Porfido jumped in on the digital health trend and since then, her Fitbit infatuation has only escalated. She cites her ½ inch thick, rubber, black Fitbit flex bracelet as the main source of her reinvigoration in health and fitness.

“Now that I got it I’ve been so hyper vigilant,” said Porfido with a laugh.

She checks the Fitbit that is wrapped around her wrist five or six times a day in order to gauge if she is close to reaching her goal of walking between 11,000 and 13,000 steps. The equivalent of about six miles a day.

“Around 3 or 4 o’clock if I check it and it’s lower than I would want it to be in my head then I’ll go, ‘Oh my god I have to go to the gym or something…’ It’s just little tiny things that I think definitely in the long run make a difference if you’re more conscious about it,” Porfido said.

For Apfel, his motivation behind purchasing the Fitbit One, a model that clips onto your belt, three years ago was as much about his health as it was about his dogs. Behind Apfel’s house lies a big, fenced-in yard and instead of taking his dogs on walks around the neighborhood, he was letting them run around in the yard more and more frequently. He says he was “spoiled” by this backyard and when he would try to take them on walks, the dogs weren’t behaving well because they were accustomed to the freedom the yard gave them. This motivation has been “100 percent” successful according to Apfel. “I have found myself going on walks and walking them 100 times more than I ever normally would have without the Fitbit because by the end of the day I’m like, I’m 2,000 steps away from my goal and I already walked the dogs ‘Come on dogs we’re going for another walk!”

According to the Fitbit website, the product is marketed as a way, “To empower and inspire you to live a healthier, more active life.” Creators Eric Park and James Friedman wanted to release a health gadget that was intertwined with the growing tech world and would easily sync up with consumers’ busy lifestyles. In this sense, Fitbit succeeds. Fitbit users are proven to take 43 percent more steps than non-Fitbit users. This motivation to lead a more active lifestyle that is as much internal as it is external.

Porfido, a 21 year old millennial, was introduced to the Fitbit through friends and initially purchased one for the “social” aspects. She uses the challenge features to compete with her friends to see who can accumulate the most steps. Challenges such as the “Weekend Warrior” to see “who can get the most steps over the weekend” add another layer of dedication and competition to the digital bracelet.

Porfido said, “Throughout the day you’ll get notifications like, ‘This person’s creeping up on you,’ or ‘This person just got 500 steps ahead of you,’ or like ‘You’re falling behind.’ If not just for myself, it feels like everyone else is watching me. But I like that a lot because I feel like if you were by yourself doing your own thing and you didn’t have other people to judge you then you’d be less inclined to take more steps.”

Despite the difference in age between Porfido and Apfel, both enjoy the competitive nature of the Fitbit.

Apfel once participated in a “Daily Showdown,” challenge with his wife and father to see who could accumulate the most steps in 24 hours. When he woke up at 7 a.m. and checked the app, he noticed that his father had already walked 6,000 steps before Apfel had even gotten out of bed. When Apfel called his father to ask him how he had already racked up 6,000 steps, his father laughed saying that he ran on the treadmill and slyly mentioned that Apfel was the one who challenged him in the first place. Apfel’s wife immediately gave up and Apfel initially thought that, despite the day just getting started, there was no way he could surpass his dad.

During the rest of the workday, Apfel went about his normal routine. He took his dogs for a walk, attended an on-campus meeting, and when he finally arrived home at 10 p.m., he realized he needed 3,000 more steps to beat his father. Knowing that his father was a morning person and that he was a night person, Apfel put his dogs on their leashes again and went for an hour and a half walk. Apfel was still a few hundred steps shy of beating his father when he returned home from the walk at around 11:30. He paced around the living room and once he had beaten his father by only 20 steps, he went to bed. Apfel gleefully pulls out his iPhone to show me the picture he screen-shotted of the achievement. Three horizontal bars are featured and Apfel’s is on top with a gold star next to it, proving that he beat his father in the challenge.

“As I was walking around I was like my dogs wouldn’t be getting this awesome exercise [and] I wouldn’t be getting this awesome exercise if it wasn’t for this challenge,” said Apfel. “So, it is 100 percent because of the Fitbit that I am doing this and the challenging. I would have never in a million years walked 12,000 steps in a day if it weren’t for that challenge competition.”

Depending on the model, the price of a Fitbit can range between 60 and 250 dollars. According to Fitbit’s website, the Fitbit counts steps through a “three-axis accelerometer.” This technology turns physical activity into a numerical representation by capturing movement from every angle and running it through an algorithm.

According to the Berkeley Science Review, Fitbit garnered “over 50 percent of the three million plus sales of wearable fitness devices” between 2013 and 2014. Despite the seeming monopoly that Fitbit has on the digital health industry, most users feel that the Fitbit is a motivator rather than a burden on their lifestyle.

Greco, an athletic trainer, said that setting goals and reaching a step count helps her maintain an active lifestyle. “I think it’s nice to know my activity levels…I don’t think there’s any real pressure to try and make my step goal or anything.”

Apfel on the other hand said that while he does not view the Fitbit as a negative pressure, he could see how some people would get discouraged and give up. He spoke of his mother and how despite being a competitive person, she was constantly at the bottom of their family challenges. She blamed the shortcomings on the app rather than her inability to make a conscious effort to wear her Fitbit and walk.

“You have to go into it with people that have similar lifestyles as you but also are going to push you. My mom did not like it because she was always on the bottom and so she doesn’t use it anymore. There are some negatives; you have to be invested into it,” said Apfel.

To Porfido, even if it feels like her friends are judging her, the physical benefits add to the overall goal of healthy living. “If everyone sees your [stats] then its even more motivation to do better…everyone keeps pushing themselves which is good,” said Porfido.

In an article published online for U.S. News & World Reports journalist Amir Khan spoke with Ted Vickey, “an American Council on Exercise board member and former executive director of the White House Athletic Center under the Clinton and Bush administrations” about the rise of Fitbits. Vickey said, “When you make a change, don’t try to go from ‘zero to 100 overnight’…These sensors come programmed with a goal of 10,000 steps per day, but if you’re just starting out, it’s unreasonable to aim for that…Instead, slowly work your way up, increasing your daily step count by 10 percent each week until you hit 10,000, which is the number of daily steps recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General.”

Greco spoke on this and said, “There’s always good and bad to things. It definitely can be unhealthy, but it really depends on the person. It’s fun to see how active you are in a day and continue to check them.”

In the end, it is how users choose to approach digital fitness and make daily, minute changes that influence their success and happiness with the Fitbit.

For Porfido this meant making a conscious effort to accumulate more steps. When Porfido exited the 86th street subway station while living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she would check her Fitbit while simultaneously walking six blocks uptown towards the 92nd Street Y. Upon entering if she wanted more steps, she would bypasses the elevator and instead, begin ascending the stairs to her room on the tenth floor.

For Apfel, this meant actively seeking out opportunities to earn a few hundred more steps. When he realized how much of his daily day consisted of sitting at a desk, he made a change. Instead of having student meetings in his office, he walks with students around campus to chat. Instead of parking in the closest spot, he purposely parks in a spot that is a little farther away. He even makes more trips to the water fountain to earn just a few more steps. All of these examples, and more, are what Apfel refers to as a “positive cycle effect” that improves not only his step count, but also his overall health.

“There’s no losing there’s no disadvantage,” said Apfel. Our generations are very competitive in nature and so being able to make fitness a competition is very smart and very fun.”

All Photography by Emily Houston

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