The Fitbit has become an enormously popular health & fitness gadget since its inception in 2007. It dominates the Amazon best seller list in the sports & fitness category, and it seems like everyone and their grandma is walking around with the signature black bracelet these days.
What does the Fitbit actually do? How does it work? And most importantly — can it actually help with weight loss? That’s what we’re going to answer in this edition of the straightforwardfatloss.com straight dope.
Though I’ll be talking about Fitbit specifically, the discussion herein will be equally relevant to any other fitness tracking band product on the market.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
- First – What is a Fitbit, Exaclty? What Does it Do and How Does it Work?
- A Quick Preliminary Aside – Weight Loss 101
- Issue #1: How Accurate is Fitbit?
- Issue #2: Knowing Your Exact Caloric Expenditure (or Intake) Isn’t Actually All That Useful for Weight Loss Anyway
- Issue #3: Fitbit Doesn’t Do Anything to Help With Tracking Calorie Intake
- Issue #4 – Weight Loss Strategies That Solely Focus on Exercise While Neglecting Diet Generally Fail
- Issue #5 – The Crux: Bloated Overengineering, Misdirection, and Needless Extra Hassle That Might Be Ultimately Counterproductive
- Don’t Fall Victim To Shiny Object Syndrome
- Fitbit Is Legitimately Worthwhile in Some Cases
- Concluding Points
First – What is a Fitbit, Exaclty? What Does it Do and How Does it Work?
There are several Fitbit products with varying features, but they all share the main purpose of tracking your movement throughout the day and calculating how many calories you burn. That’s all you need to understand for the sake of this article, but if you’re interested in the specifics of the full Fitbit product lineup, check out their product comparison page.
The simplest Fitbit model is about 50 dollars while the more feature rich models range up to around 260 dollars.
Fitbit can sync up with a variety of calorie diary apps, Cronometer for example, and automatically log your caloric expenditure via the exercise or general moving around you do that day. You can even compete in various “leader boards” if you’re enthusiastic about expending more calories than other random people on the internet.
As far as losing weight is concerned, the main idea behind Fitbit, as I see it, is that knowing how many calories your burn per day makes losing weight easier (or doable at all). For example, you can make sure that you hit a daily minimum calories burned that you’ve set for yourself.
Knowing your overall daily caloric expenditure and how many calories you burn per day via exercise seems like useful information to have in theory, but will a Fitbit actually help you lose weight in practice? At least enough so to justify the requisite effort of using it and it’s price tag?
My honest opinion is no, at least for the average person.
… But, I do think a Fitbit can be a useful tool to have in some specific cases. More on that later, but first, let’s discuss the issues with Fitbit as it pertains to losing weight.
A Quick Preliminary Aside – Weight Loss 101
Despite still pervasive and apparently misinformed discussion, the truth is that the (quality and pertinent) scientific research has overwhelmingly shown that weight loss is ultimately a function of calories in vs. calories out.
Bottom line: If you consume less calories than you burn over time, you’ll lose weight. If you don’t, you wont. Eat less or exercise more — it doesn’t matter how you do it, really.
Any product’s usefulness for weight loss will be a direct function of how much it helps you get calories expended greater than calories consumed over time. For example, food diaries can be very useful for weight loss because they’ll show you how many calories are in the food that you’re eating, and you can thus be sure not to overeat.
So, how does a Fitbit measure up when using this key criteria?
Issue #1: How Accurate is Fitbit?
According to Mark David at Burnthefatinnercircle.com (ran by Tom Venuto, he’s a solid in the industry), the Fitbit technology is accurate within 100 calories of the Harris-Benedict equation, the definitive caloric expenditure approximation equation. However, he also disclaims that Fitbit isn’t all that good at tracking “off feet” activities like cycling and swimming, and that you’ll probably have to manually log such activities.
I’m willing to concede to his word and give the technology the benefit of the doubt, but only because Fitbit’s purported accuracy isn’t the actual issue when it comes to weight loss, so it’s ultimately moot. We’ll get to that in a moment.
But what I will say is that, drilled down to the T, the energy balance becomes incredibly complicated. You’re dealing with hormones, environmental queues, genetics… and how much did you *actually* move around today? Trying to figure out your *true* caloric expenditure is virtually impossible, even with the most sophisticated technology available, much less technology that’s realistically available to the average consumer, Fitbit for example. Not to mention, just about anyone would quickly go insane if they attempted such a futile task on a daily basis.
Issue #2: Knowing Your Exact Caloric Expenditure (or Intake) Isn’t Actually All That Useful for Weight Loss Anyway
In the long run — what ultimately matters — succeeding with weight loss is like succeeding in the stock market: it’s the trend over time that counts, and the short term variance is negligible.
So you maybe burned 14 less calories then what you calculated. Guess what? It doesn’t matter — small short term errors are insignificant over the long run. What does matter is that, give or take some small-ish daily margin of error, you’re burning some meaningful percent more calories than you’re consuming over time.
To do that effectively, accuracy just isn’t all that important. What is important, contrarily, is that you’re consistent with your system, whatever it may be, so that you can make meaningful running adjustments. Have you not made discernible progress after a few weeks? Then eat 10% less food, or do 20% more cardio. Sloppy examples but you get the idea — assess, adjust, rinse and repeat until things are working.
When you intuitively understand what I’ve just said, you intuitively realize that initial inaccuracy does’t matter over the long run. Nor does it matter where the inaccuracy lies — it only matters that you correct things somewhere on the overall equation to make it balance on that sweet spot of optimal progress.
Issue #3: Fitbit Doesn’t Do Anything to Help With Tracking Calorie Intake
When it comes to losing weight, the vast majority of the time the issue lies in the intake side of the energy equation, not the expenditure side. In other words, most people are simply eating too much. Elliptical Ernie has no idea that he’s wiping out half of his caloric budget by eating organic fair trade fat burning trail mix every three hours.
Learning how to effectively count your calorie intake is far and away the best way to solve this problem, just like keeping a budget is far and away the best way to solve an overspending problem. Done correctly, calorie counting is in fact the only weight loss strategy that’s virtually guaranteed to work.
We all know what the problem is, though: calorie counting is a pain — a tolerable chore at best, or more often than not an insurmountably frustrating attempt that peters out after a few weeks or days.
The issue is that Fitbit doesn’t really do anything useful to help with that. It only calculates the exercise/expenditure portion of the weight loss equation and does nothing to help with the diet/intake portion of the equation, and the latter is where the issue almost always exists.
Issue #4 – Weight Loss Strategies That Solely Focus on Exercise While Neglecting Diet Generally Fail
Exercise is very important, everyone knows that.
But we also see the diligent hour-a-day treadmillers at the gym… who look exactly the same year after year.
More often than not, people who exercise often negate it by eating more, perhaps under the guise of having “earned” it, where “it” is usually in the form of cookies or ice cream.
So the tracker says you hit your calorie target today. Great. But did you eat too much and negate your effort? People who don’t ask that question in earnest are the people you see slogging away on a cardio machine day after day, year after year, while never actually losing any weight.
Again, weight issues almost always lie in the diet/intake side of the energy balance equation, not the exercise/expenditure side of it, where the Fitbit is focused.
Issue #5 – The Crux: Bloated Overengineering, Misdirection, and Needless Extra Hassle That Might Be Ultimately Counterproductive
Take a look at some of the bells and whistles of the higher end Fitbit Surge:
- “Auto Exercise Recognition
- “Multi Sport”
- “Caller ID”
- “GPS tracking”
I ask: how is anything like that going to *actually* help you do what’s important on a day to day basis to make weight loss *actually* happen: make calories out > calories in, one way or another?
The entire purpose of this blog is to hammer home the point that the best strategy is the simplest and easiest strategy that still works. Needless overcomplication is the mortal enemy of sustainable weight loss, and the way I see it, all a Fitbit will do is suck up my limited attention towards micromanaging frivolous fitness data, likely at the expense of neglecting the singular thing that matters, getting a daily system in check that makes calories out > calories in over time.
This main issue is best explained with an example. Consider two hypothetical dieters who aim for a fairly standard target, burning 3500 calories per week which translates to about 1lb of fat loss per week.
- Simply decides his daily energy expenditure will be 2500 calories, more or less.
- Simply decides that his rotating meal plan will hit 2000 calories, more or less.
- Result: 3000-4000 calories of fat burned per week (within 10-15% of his actual 3500/week target).
- Uses Fitbit to try and figure out his “exact” energy expenditure on a daily basis.
- Religiously tracks food intake on the fly to hit his daily 2000 calorie target exactly.
- Result: 3400-3600 calories of fat burned per week (within 2.5% accuracy)
Guy #1 might be a little off and sloppy here and there, but he’s reasonably close enough to lose roughly one pound a week, give or take. Remember the stock market analogy.
The key to Guy #1’s strategy is that it will make his day to day life way simpler and way easier than Guy #2’s day to day life will be. Guy #1 doesn’t have fret over hitting exact caloric targets, nor fret over managing a Fitbit device, nor fret over frivolous daily diet management minutia — his strategy is simple and thus sustainable.
Compare that to Guy #2’s strategy: Chances are he’ll eventually become mentally exhausted by the perpetual busywork of micromanaging his fitness data. This is exactly the kind of thing that causes willpower depletion, the “screw it binge,” and giving up all together before the system has actually been in place long enough to yield appreciable results.
My main point: Day to day pinpoint accuracy, which is the main selling point of a fitness tracker like Fitbit as I see it, is far less important than day to day simplicity and ease that makes the strategy sustainable. An ~85% on-point/accurate “close enough” diet that’s really simple and easy to stick to is orders of magnitude better than a 97% on-point/accurate diet that’s a royal pain in the ass to manage and stick to on a day to day basis.
To me, Fitbit, more than anything, bogs the user down with frivolous bell & whistle features (overegineering) and shifts his focus away from the more important diet/intake side of the energy equation to the much less important exercise/output side of it (misdirection). Ultimately, this just seems to create needless daily hassle, and any ostensible extra work is counterproductive to the sustainability of any viable weight loss strategy.
Don’t Fall Victim To Shiny Object Syndrome
Fitbit uses the same common marketing strategy that virtually every health & fitness product or fad diet uses: The golden goose egg tactic.
“ohhh, THIS neat little gimmick is what I need to FINALLY lose weight, once and for all!”
Don’t get sucked into an emotional purchase in the delusional pursuit of a magic golden goose egg solution — they don’t exist.
As I’ve explained, a Fitbit doesn’t actually do much of anything towards making weight loss easier, and the bloated feature list might wind up bogging you down and be counterproductive, if anything.
Am I saying the Fitbit company is comprised of evil hucksters or that the device is a scam? No, of course not. Emotional marketing is part of the game because that’s what works. We all do it, myself included. There’s a fine line between emotional appeal with honest intent and outright deception. Caveat emptor.
Fitbit Is Legitimately Worthwhile in Some Cases
I did say we’d cover this earlier on. The first way that Fitbit could be quite useful is with a cold hard reality check.
People routinely overestimate how many calories they burn and how much exercise they do. Fitbit might be just what a person needs to get dragged back to planet earth. Regardless of weight loss, if Fitbit compels a person who is deficient in exercise to do more of it, that’s a good thing, obviously.
The second way in which I believe Fitbit is useful is for those who have highly active, varied, and unpredictable lifestyles. Maybe you’re a manual laborer, for example. Most people trying to lose weight can just shoot for a rough average daily calorie target since their caloric expenditure is fairly predictable. However, if your caloric expenditure is fluctuating wildly on a day to day basis, then it may be more prudent to adjust your day to day diet to fit that short term. A Fitbit can definitely help make that easier to do.
Or maybe you’re just a data junkie and find all of this stuff fun to track — sure, go ahead and get a Fitbit then.
Here’s a link to the Fitbit product page Where you can browse and compare the different models.
If I were to get one, I’d opt for the simplest and cheapest Fitbit Zip. It’s only 50 bucks and can do all the important basics. The additional features of the more expensive units just seem like unnecessary bells and whistles, in my opinion.
- The Fitbit is a device that helps you track how many calories you burn per day, both via exercise and general moving around. There are different models with different features, ranging from about 50-260 dollars
- The device doesn’t do anything to help with accurately tracking food intake, which is generally the most important part of any effective weight loss strategy.
- For most people, the device is an overengineered and misdirected “solution” that addresses something that’s not really a problem to begin with. A reasonable daily margin of error to the tune of 5-15% isn’t a big deal, and is in fact preferable to a more involved and accurate strategy that takes more work. More work generally means less sustainability, which is the mortal enemy of successful long term weight loss.
- The Fitbit can be useful for people who either need a reality check or who have highly active and varied lifestyles.
- Don’t fall victim to shiny object syndrome — it’s the oldest health & fitness marketing gimmick in the book.
- I recommend the bare bones and cheapest Fitbit Zip. It has all the (situationally) useful features. The additional features on the more expensive units seem to be non useful bells and whistles in my opinion.
Did you successfully lose weight with Fitbit or another tracker band? Share how you did it in the comments, I’d be really interested to know.
Fitbit Flex – MorePix