The future of fitness tech is here. And it’s dystopian.
When Nike released the FuelBand in January 2012, my boyfriend at the time was certain it would make the perfect gift for me, raising the bar for my fitness-crazed inner athlete—a welcome development, right? On the fateful day he ordered my wrist-worn, nonhuman trainer, little did he know that he was effectively locking me into a handcuff of obsession. To be sure, there’s a good reason why I no longer have a FuelBand (or a boyfriend).
Like most gadgets born of the recent activity-tracker movement—think Fitbits, Jawbones UPs, Basis Watches—the FuelBand uses a traxial accelerometer to sense movement. (This magic tech trick is what makes an iPhone screen rotate when it’s tilted.) The smarts inside the FuelBand tracks time, steps taken, calories burned, and NikeFuel earned on a personal NikePlus account, where you can set goals to earn a certain amount of NikeFuel each day.
So—what’s NikeFuel? According to NikePlus, it’s a “universal way to measure movement for all kinds of activities.” What NikePlus should say is that it’s a “meaningless number, calculated by an algorithm using the laws of obligation and shame, for which a limit doesn’t exist.” In sum, NikeFuel points have no meaning beyond the boundaries of Nike World. The concept behind the points is that, unlike BMRs or calories, they’re supposed to represent whole-body movements—free from the variables of weight, gender, age, or height. They count every motion equally, from a fidget to a front squat.
The first goal I set for myself was to earn 3,000 NikeFuel points daily. Watching the parade of LED lights march across the band, first as one measly, red dot, then exploding into a full array of celebratory orange, yellow, and green, became my only interest. All naïveté and gumption on day one, I ran a six-mile track ladder workout. Red turned to orange. So I followed up with stadium stairs. Orange turned to yellow. So I did plyometrics. Yellow turned to lemon-lime. So close. A three-mile slow run rang in the victory, as the last of the lights flashed bright green and “GOAL!” flashed across the face of my new best friend–worst enemy.
Three thousand FuelPoints seemed too easy after that. If a newbie like me could score a victory before lunchtime, then, I figured, two weeks and 14 GOALS! later, 5,000 FuelPoints should pose a more fitting challenge. I started walking everywhere I went, and clapping loudest and longest at football games. Suddenly, two runs a day didn’t seem like a bad idea. Any opportunity to move had to be optimized. This can’t be confirmed, but I think I even tossed and turned more at night. The FuelBand had taken over.
I never drove anywhere without incessantly hand-dancing or drumming on my steering wheel. A friend and fellow runner cautioned me about what she called FuelBand elbow—yes, an activity tracker–related injury. During a half marathon, hitting 5,000 FuelPoints at mile ten grabbed my attention more than the 1:30:09 time beaming across the clock at the finish line. All that mattered was that darned last green dot greeting me before the end of each day. Heaven forbid I might fall short and experience FuelShame. I would have sputtered out before I let that little machine get the best of me. Then, somehow, I wasn’t the one that sputtered out. After five months of my racking up daily GOAL!s, the FuelBand lost its mojo. It must have tired of counting to 5,000 every 24 hours, or of being shaken like a maraca every waking moment. Either way, it was done, broken.
What was I to do now? All of a sudden, my workouts had no purpose. All I needed to do to regain my FuelBand lifestyle was to send in the dead one and wait for a replacement in the mail. But, in between boxing up the broken band and calling customer service, I realized that I should never have measured my abilities on a continuum of colored lights. NikeFuel points can’t calculate the worth of a workout.
For a few days, I noticed something missing from my right wrist, and from my mind. It was the weight of the FuelBand. But the good habits I’d created hadn’t gone anywhere: I still walked to the store and dared not skip workouts. On the other hand, the bad habit I’d acquired of obsessing over Nike’s opinion of my fitness disappeared. With the loss of my activity tracker, I found the joy in the actual activity again.