The trouble with the Nike+ FuelBand

A fitness fiend finds few positives about the $150 workout tracker.

Illustration: Jesse Lenz

For several months earlier this year, the Nike+ FuelBand owned me. I was its puppet. It was the saddest thing to hit me since braces.

The FuelBand is a bracelet that looks like a rubber band, only a little thicker and stiffer. It comes in black or clear. It measures your steps taken, your calories burned and some of your other motions, based on the movement of your wrist. The FuelBand can sense if you’re playing basketball, or dancing, and it measures how hard you’re playing, or shimmying. It doesn’t keep track of push-ups, chin-ups or cycling, because the wrist doesn’t move much for those activities. Nevertheless, the band measures what it can and calculates the wearer’s daily “Fuel Points.”

What is a Fuel Point, exactly? It’s a Nike invention that, like the wind-chill factor, body-mass index and the Chicago Tribune, may or may not tell us anything useful.

Before I began my FuelBand experiment, I was already hooked on the Nike+ Sportwatch GPS, which tracks my every run. Thanks to the watch, I can tell you that I’ve run 1,236 miles in 2012 at an average pace of 8:37 per mile, and I can show you on a map every route I’ve run, from the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, to the path along the Puget Sound in Seattle.

Thanks for asking.

Enter the FuelBand, which sells for about $150. I got mine free from a Nike public relations executive. I wore it on my right wrist so it wouldn’t clatter against the Sportwatch on my left. My wife called it overkill, saying I was already sufficiently motivated to exercise. I argued otherwise. Motivators to me are like tax shelters to Mitt Romney: You can never have enough.

I set a goal of 2,000 Fuel Points a day, because the Nike website recommended that number for a normal day of activity, no matter one’s age or size. The band was comfortable and handsome. And my kids loved pushing its single button to see how I was doing. A rainbow of light brightens the band when the button is pressed, going from red to yellow to green as you approach your goal.

At first, the band worked. In choosing whether to walk to the library or drive, I walked, eager to pile up points. But I discovered that on days I ran, I would blow away my goal of 2,000 Fuel Points by 10am.

There were occasional days, though not many, when I got stuck at my desk or behind the wheel of a car and didn’t achieve my goal. Once, as I brushed my teeth before bed, I noticed I was at 1,950. I brushed with a little extra vigor while marching in place. I hit my target and hit the sack feeling more satisfied than stupid (slightly).

After a few months with the band, though, the numbers began to seem arbitrary. They weren’t motivating me to do anything except inform my friends and family each time I set a new personal record. Shockingly, they were not interested.

With my GPS watch, I am logging actual miles and measuring real speed. I can see I’m slower in summer than winter and that miles five and six are usually my slowest when I go on eight-mile runs. That’s useful. But the band gave me only raw numbers, and, ultimately, it didn’t change my behavior. It reminded me of high-school biology: I figured out how to get passing grades, but I wasn’t learning anything.

So after three months, I took off the band, packed it up, and mailed it to a buddy who’s always telling me he wishes he had more time to exercise. He’s got an office job and a new baby at home. But just in case the band alone was not sufficient motivation for him, I included a note.

“I’ve got 2,128,075 Fuel Points,” it said. “Top that!”

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