Nike Fuelband for the Highly Sedentary

My job is probably killing me.

I knew this in an abstract sort of way even before I bought a Nike+ Fuelband. I mean, I sit and type all day. Often with my head stuck in a bag of Fritos. No exercise + lousy food = looming cardiac doom. But I was able to rationalize that surely I wasn't as inactive as all that. No! I have small children! Sometimes I do active things like cook and clean! Not only do I have a gym membership, but there are days when I go to the gym, you guys! But I'm a data junkie, and it's nice to have a little reassurance.

Enter the Nike Fuelband, a gussied-up pedometer in the form factor of a bracelet. I held out on buying one for a long time, jonesing instead for the similar Jawbone UP, which does activity tracking, plus tracking of sleep quality... and has a silent vibrate alarm to wake you up in a period of light sleep or get you moving when you've been sitting still for too long.

But the UP was pulled from the market after selling for about two weeks last winter. Turns out they break. All of them. Within days, at most weeks. They're supposed to come out with a more durable model soon. They've been saying that for months, though, and I want my shiny activity-tracking toy NOW.

So the Fuelband. I bought one. And it was a revelation. ...not the good kind of revelation.

Nike Fuel

The Fuelband tracks calories burned and steps taken, but it also calculates a made-up metric called "Fuel." What is Fuel? Nike says:

NikeFuel counts all the activities of your athletic life. Running, walking, basketball. Nike+ devices measure your moves and turn them into NikeFuel. And since NikeFuel is calculated the same way for everyone, you can compare and compete with anyone.

So basically it's a generic "activity" metric. As one might expect, since it's measured by an accelerometer on your wrist, it vastly undercounts activites like cycling. You're not supposed to swim with it (though you can shower with it on.) Strength training and yoga aren't going to fuel you up, so to speak.

But thinking about how the device measures the activity you do on purpose for the sake of exercise is entirely missing the point of the Fuelband. There are a million devices to measure a workout -- Nike has a few themselves. Heart rate monitors, GPS tags in your shoes or phone. What the Fuelband is good for is judging how active you are all of the rest of the time.

Just How Active Are You, Really?

Here's where we get to "my job is killing me."

Nike says on an average day, a normal person shouldn't have too much trouble hitting 2000 fuel. If you hit the gym, that's about 2500. If you're a real athlete, you might hit 3000, or even 3500.

My first day with the Fuelband on all day was a Friday. All fired up with my new purchase, I went to the gym, played a little Zombies, Run!, it was fab.

Not bad, right? Then came Saturday. I hung out with my kids, we went and did a little shopping, so I walked around a fair amount, and it was... you know, an ordinary kinda busy Saturday.

Oh. Oh dear. So then what does it look like when I basically sit around and play video games all day...?

I... I see.

Is there maybe something wrong with my Fuelband? Is it undercounting or broken? Surely we can test this.

I mean, sometimes I go places and do things! Like conferences! And meetings! For example, this was a day at the Nordic Games Conference. Any day at, say, SXSW would probably look substantially the same. 

ON FIRE! Soooo yeah, probably not broken then, is it? (In fact, just yesterday Naomi Alderman and I Did Science and showed that our Fuelbands are counting exactly the same activities the same way. Not broken. I really am just that lazy.) 

That 3900 fuel is an exceptional day in many senses, because I'm not at a conference every day. So let's face the facts: An ordinary person spends 2000 fuel in normal daily activities. But me, with my working-from-home at a desk job that involves sitting very still and staring off into space... yeah, that's not exactly the recipe for longevity. Now I know exactly how bad a recipe it is. Yikes.

Still, none of this self-awareness and shame matters unless it results in behavior change. And have I seen behavior change?

Looks like, don't you think? I still have an off day (and sometimes days in a row), and my goal is a modest 1700 for now and not 2000... but that's still way better than an average under 1000. The interesting thing: Some of that is gym time, sure, but most of the extra fuel is coming from ordinary daily tasks -- stuff like folding laundry and mopping that I should really be doing way more often to begin with. Having that judgy little black bracelet on my wrist, it turns out, makes me a better housekeeper.

So do I think you should buy a Fuelband, too? Yes. Yes, I do. It's an excellent way of peeling the layers of denial from your eyes. I can't promise it'll make you thin or strong or a better athlete or even (like me) a marginally better housekeeper... but it will at least make you more aware of what you are and aren't doing. Now I know just how rapidly my arteries are turning into cement and my muscles are turning into sludge. And knowing is, as GI Joe says, half the battle. 


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