FitBit: The Gamification of Weight Loss

As many of you that follow me on Twitter know, I recently acquired a new bit of technology in my life: the FitBit.  This article is a story about my first 30 days with the device, and how I’ve already lost 7 pounds.

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This is not your father’s pedometer.

This has become a consistent subject of conversation with people I talk to, primarily because it’s a cool device that I always have with me, and I love talking about tech.  When I show it to people, and give them my explanation that the FitBit keeps track of steps, calories, flights of stairs, sleep cycles, and more, the response is generally the same:

“Oh, it’s a pedometer.”

Perhaps in some ways it is, but for me, it’s incentive.  The device wirelessly syncs with a base that plugs into my USB port, and my tracking data is automatically uploaded to their website (privately) so that I can see reports over time.  Here’s my activity chart, for example (I work at a computer all day, don’t judge):

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As you would expect, there are also achievements to be gotten.  While I would have expected them to motivate me more, to this point, they’ve only been small blips of celebration rather than the motivation they are supposed to provide.  That being said, I do look forward to the opportunities I have to get a bunch of walking in, and I keep an active eye on getting to my 10,000 step-a-day goal.  (I’m only averaging ~5,000 steps per day right now.)  I have the strong desire to take more steps each day, but that hasn’t been enough to actually get me outside taking some.  I hope that as the weather turns warmer, my feeling on this will change.

With all of this rich data, I really thought that this device was going to be the thing that kept me aware of my activity levels, and would be the breakthrough I needed to finally lose some weight.  It wasn’t.

Calories are more important than steps.

Part of the tools for FitBit include tracking for a great number of other considerations: your activities (you swam a mile today?  log it.), your weight (a manual entry process, but they are coming out with a wireless scale that logs it automatically), sleep, heart rate, blood pressure, and even glucose levels.  Obviously, you have to measure all of this data yourself, but it’s nice that you can keep it all tracked in one place. There’s also a journal for you to measure your mood, energy, allergies, and your thoughts on each day.  All of these are great, but the greatest tool in their arsenal is the food tracker.

This is where gamification has affected me dramatically, and here’s the best part:  it’s actually free for anyone to use, even if you don’t buy a device.

Never in my entire life have I really worried about what I’ve eaten.  Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been gorging myself on Twinkies and Hostess Pies, but I’ve also never been a guy to turn down another piece of pizza.  That has resulted in my gaining about 4 pounds a year, every year, since high school.  Yes, I am actually (as of today) 70 lbs. heavier than I was when I graduated high school.  But I was also a three-sport athelete good enough to be a Division 1 collegiate diver.  I graduated high school at 135 pounds, and don’t have any expectations of getting back to that.  My target weight is 170.

Back to the food tracker.  I enter everything I eat, after every meal.  80% of the time, the site already knows about my food.  Most restaurants’ entire menus are listed, with nutritional information, and I can just search for my entrée.  For the food I make at home, most of my groceries are represented, or a similar substitute is there.  If there isn’t, they give you the ability to update their database with your new item in about 5 seconds, and then add that food to your log.

This little box is almost exclusively the reason I am losing weight:

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There’s only three pieces of data, but they absolutely dictate how I’m going to eat the rest of the day.  First, there’s how many calories I’ve eaten today.  It’s a useful way to make sure that I have consciously added all of the food I’ve eaten.  If the number seems low at 3:00pm, I probably didn’t enter my lunch food yet, and I should do that.

Second is the “under goal” number.  This number, for me, is a "you will not exceed this number,” type of value.  I never, ever let myself eat something that will take me over that limit.  This is where the gamification, for me, comes in.  If I get invited out to one of my favorite restaurants, I am not going to opt for the salad while crying little tears for my favorite foods.  (I’m looking at you, 900 calorie Firecracker Chicken at Molly’s Woo’s.)  Instead, I make compromises with myself.  “I can have that delicious chicken, but I’m going to have to be careful at dinner.  Maybe just a bowl of soup and some crackers.”  By never letting myself go over the number, I am losing weight at a record pace (for me), and I’m still not hungry.  In fact, I’m still eating whatever I want, for the most part.  But I might only have 1 slice of pizza at a user group meeting instead of my standard three.

Finally, there’s the weight goal.  This is how everything gets determined.  When you first set up the tools (which again, are free for anyone to use), it asks you to set a weight goal.

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Next it asks you about how aggressive you want to be in getting to your goals.  I chose “Medium”, primarily because “Easier” seemed too easy, and “Kinda Hard” and “Harder” seemed almost unhealthy.

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Every morning, I step on the scale, and add it to my FitBit log.  Based on the weight I’ve lost (or gained, it happens), it will dynamically update my estimated date until completion.  I don’t want to see that date move into the future, I want it to get closer to now.  This is my motivator.

The Wrapup

In short, I’m losing weight effectively for the first time in my life, and I haven’t even started adding real exercise to my regimen.  As the weather warms up, I’m sure I’ll take a few trips around the neighborhood each night.  It’s still very early, but I truly believe that having a consciousness about what I’m eating is having a direct impact on my life.

I think that the FitBit device is an astounding piece of technology engineering, and it is providing me with the confirmation that I’m a sedentary software developer that needs to get on his feet more.  I don’t think that the device alone is enough to have an effect, however.

You need the desire to change your eating habits, if only slightly, and the willingness to record everything you eat.  Omitting that Baby Ruth is only cheating the system for yourself.

If you do decide to pick up a device, add me as your friend on the site.  My username, not surprisingly, is jeffblankenburg.  I’d love to have a few more people pushing me to take a few more steps every day.

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Finally, there’s apps available for using FitBit on the go (there’s also an API, if you’re feeling ambitious).  You can’t sync your device remotely (unless you have the receiver plugged in to your internet-connected laptop), but you can enter your data, food, weight, etc.  Here’s my picks:

4 thoughts on “FitBit: The Gamification of Weight Loss

  1. Hey Jeff — I’m doing much the same thing. I’m using the free mobile calorie counter from LiveStrong.com (with my Nokia Lumia 710). I count calories and I’ve cut out all soda and caffeinated drinks. Dropped 24 pounds since Jan 2. I expect the rate to slow down, but hopefully I’ll still continue to drop pounds for a while.

  2. The Withings (http://www.withings.com) Wifi scale can sync your daily weight, along with BMI and lean body fat, to the fitbit website. It’s awesome and works great!

  3. Hey Jeff, if you need some peer pressure to exercise, be sure to check out Endomondo (http://www.endomondo.com). It’s a smartphone app + website with some social features. Your friends can check out what you tracked and you can publish things to Facebook, so you might feel guilty if you don’t do anything 😉

  4. I lost 7 lbs after my Mexican lunch today. Write again when you have something more impressive.

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