A Band Of Numbers: Nike’s Newest Invention, The ‘FuelBand’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.

I don’t understand the Nike+ FuelBand. I’m not certain if I like the Nike+ FuelBand. But for several months earlier this year, it owned me. I was its puppet. It was the saddest thing to hit me since braces.

The FuelBand is a black bracelet that looks like a rubber band, only a little thicker and stiffer. It measures your steps taken, your calories burned, and some of your other motions. If I understand it correctly, the FuelBand can sense if you’re playing basketball, or dancing, and it measures how hard you’re playing, or dancing. It doesn’t keep track of push-up, 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.”

And 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 thoroughly 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 of the globe every route I’ve run, from the streets of downtown Kingston, Jamaica, to the path along the Puget Sound in Seattle.

Thanks for asking.

I am so addicted to the Sportwatch that if I forget to wear it, I feel as if my run doesn’t count. I’ve been known to call Nike customer service on these rare occasions and ask them to log my run manually. And they do it, too.

The tracking device pushes me to run faster and farther because I don’t want to perform worse than I did last week, last month, or last year. It pits me in competition against myself—a battle I can never win yet never tire of fighting. And because I work from home, I have no excuse not to get out and run at least three or four times a week. If I slip, the watch will know.

Enter the FuelBand, which sells for about $150 but I got for 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 enough.

So I strapped on my band and set a goal of 2,000 Fuel Points a day because the Nike web site recommended that number for normal days of activity, no matter one’s age or size. The band was comfortable and handsome. And my kids loved pushing the button to see how I was doing. A rainbow of light brightens the band when the button is pressed, going from green to yellow to orange to red 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 quickly that on days I ran, I would blow away my goal of 2,000 Fuel Points by 10 a.m. Then it was only a question of seeing if I could get up to 4,000 or 5,000 on the day. Yawn.

There were occasional days, though not many, when I got stuck at the 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 was logging actually miles and measuring real speed. I could see I was slower in summer than winter and that miles five and six were usually my slowest when I went on eight-mile runs. That was 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 in its box, 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. I figured he needed it more than I did.

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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