Fitness trackers and GPS watches: how much data is too much data?

In the last few days, my Fitbit has developed a problem. The battery, which should last around a week, is draining flat in about 30 minutes. It pretty much renders the thing useless.

This isn’t a complaint about Fitbit: the firm’s customer service has (so far) been brilliant, and they’re working to solve the problem. But it has meant that, for the best part of a week, I don’t know how many steps I’ve taken.

This might not seem a huge thing, and it probably shouldn’t be. But for the past two-and-a-half years, my Fitbit (first a Flex, more recently a Charge HR) has kept me updated on useful information such as how many steps I’ve taken and how many calories I’ve burned. As well as inadvertently sparking my running in the first place, that information was vital in helping me lose five stone. My Fitbit told me how many calories I was using, so all I needed to do was consumer fewer.

For the last few days I’ve been devoid of that information. Which has been interesting, and perhaps made me reflect a bit. I’ve developed a fairly good sense of how far I need to walk or run to do a certain amount of steps, and how much running or other exercise I do to burn. It’s not like I’ve changed any of my routine through not having my Fitbit working – so you could argue I don’t really need my Fitbit any more.

This could be force of habit. Certainly, it’s a useful comfort blanket: a glance at my Fitbit gives me a useful guide as to how active I’ve been on any given day. By doing that, I know if I can afford to treat myself to, say, one of those nice-looking but calorific biscuits a colleague has brought into the office.

But it’s also useful to be able to turn my fitness into numbers and data. And that’s not just with my Fitbit.

When I’m running I use a Garmin Forerunner 220 GPS watch, which is hugely useful (if, ahem, also randomly annoying). When I’m running, that allows me to check split times, my average place and plenty of other useful info. When I’ve finished running, I can sync my watch with my smartphone or computer and take that data to the next level.

Seriously, it’s all there. I can see my run on a satellite map:

1-marathon-map

And yes, I have chosen to demonstrate this with my London Marathon data. Because… well, because.

My Garmin also produces stats:

2-marathon-stats

And split times (see if you can spot the point in the marathon when I start struggling…):

2a-marathon-splits

It will show my – in graph form! – the elevation change of my run, my pace and my running cadence:

3-marathon-elev-pace-cadence

If I really want, I can overlay those last three on one big graph for deeper analysis:

4-marathon-overlay

In short… data. Lots of data. So… much… data.

I’ve spent a fair amount of my time working as a journalist in motorsport, and I was always amazed by how many data the telemetry in racing cars could produce, and how deeply that could be analysed. It amazed me, but didn’t surprise me: racing cars are complicated machines, so it’s no surprise they produce all sorts of technical data.

Running, by contrast, is a fairly simple pursuit. Put some shoes on, and run. That’s, essentially, all there is to it. And yet, my Garmin allows me to analyse my running like I’m a racing car. Frankly, there’s almost too much information: I don’t spend hours analysing my running in the way I could. I’d rather just run (you know, because running is a fairly simple pursuit).

Still, when I need it, it’s there. And it’s fascinating. I’m producing data. I’m producing statistical information that allows me to analyse how efficiently (or not) my running is, and how well my body is working. It’s… fascinating.

Of course, it’s not just fascinating to me. In an age when people are being increasingly monitored, what else is happening to my data? Certainly, some fitness tracker companies  are using the huge amount of data their devices are producing from millions of people to spot trends and gain information about general health. Some companies are giving their staff fitness trackers in order to try and boost their health (and, by extension, productivity). It even seems that some of the big sports clothing firms are doing uniform and equipment deals in part to gain access to the data of athletes.

Is this sinister in a ‘Big Brother is watching you’ sort of way? Should we be worried? Possibly… although it doesn’t seem that someone knowing how many steps I did yesterday is as open to abuse as half the information some people happily stick up on their Facebook page.

Besides, thanks to loyalty cards supermarkets such as Sainsburys and Tesco seem to know an awful lot about how I shop. And the sinister return for that is… personalised discount vouchers for stuff I actually buy. Creepily bargain-tastic.

Still, interesting questions. As is this: after a few days without my Fitbit, I’ve coped fine. So do I really need all these devices producing data?

Ultimately, my Fitbit wasn’t the reason I lost five stone. That was hard work and stubborn determination.

My Garmin wasn’t the reason I ran a sub-3h 30m marathon. That was, well, hard work and stubborn determination.

But, in both cases, the devices really helped. They allowed me to apply science and information to something that I would otherwise have to use ‘feel’ and educated guesswork.

So do I really need my Fitbit? Well, no – but I’d really like to have it working again…

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