The Dirty Business of Gaming Wearable Fitness Gadgets

Jan 31, 2014 at 8:29 AM ET

When fitness blogger Jayme Lamm was training for a half marathon in Houston last fall, she and her friends would run 3.2 miles on a popular running trail, then jog home along the same path. That is, of course, when the group didn’t sneak into a bar after the first stretch for a quick glass of wine, hop in their conveniently parked cars and very slowly drive home, ensuring their Nike+ Running apps recorded their route as if they were on their feet.

“Everyone wants to say they’re working out,” she says of her wheels-for-legs strategy. “I’m very competitive.”

There’s a lot of talk about whether fitness-tracking devices like the Nike+ FuelBand work—whether their rewards-based programs, cutesy energy points and cloyingly motivational emails actually incentivize weight loss. But sometimes the biggest question surrounding these pricey silicone bands isn’t whether they’re keeping users honest, but whether the Quantified Selves using them are bending the truth.

“A lot of working out and people bragging about it is kind of like everything else in life,” Lamm remarks.

Fitness trackers, ones that are meant to give us truthful reads on our activity, are easily manipulated. Athletes all over the world share their data to compete with one another. Which is why the Internet is a fertile suggestion box for avid (and aggressive) exercisers who want to cheat their own gadgets.

“Look for stretch fabrics, ergonomic seams, cuts that fit the natural contours of the body and raglan sleeves,” suggests one blogger who (somewhat satirically) lists ways to boost one’s “Fuel Points,” the Nike-calibrated fitness points that indicate steps taken for sneaker giant’s signature FuelBand. “This will free up your arms, body, head and legs and help your NikeFuel score throughout the day.”

The same blogger offers some more advice: Use chopsticks over cutlery, repeatedly shake a large bottle of juice, mop the kitchen floor in “circular motions only.”

Other fanatics are more manipulative, letting their peers—or even their dogs—help them reach their fitness goals by doing the work in their stead:

Some might say these users are “only cheating themselves,” but “extrinsic rewards,” even the fake ones, “provide ongoing motivation,” says ArsTechnica’s Casey Johnston of the wearable tech. And that argument quickly loses its footing when fitness data is compiled and used in competitive settings online.

Enter Strava, the GPS-based platform that, like the Nike+ Running system, records the time it takes for a runner or cyclist to travel a certain trail. The Strava app breaks one’s runs or bike rides into sections—say, a few-block sprints—then establishes a leader board of all Strava users who’ve traveled the same path.

The app, designed specifically to foster competition, certainly does its job; last February, the U.K.’s Sunday Times investigated the dangers of Strava, highlighting that the program was “encouraging recklessness on the road” and “inflaming tension between cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.”

But the rivalry on Strava apexed last June, when Strava users began to complain in online cycling forums of fellow competitors using a plugin known as DigitalEPO to manipulate their Strava data after completing their rides. The plugin, per DigitalEPO’s website, “juices” rides like a steroid by speeding up data that users upload to their computers.

All this may sound like more work than it’s worth, but psychology says there’s a reason behind our tinkering. “People want to look good, even to their machines,” says Dr. Lisa Firestone, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who studies why we lie to ourselves and others. “We know we should be doing all these things [exercising, eating healthy], but there’s a lot of shame, humility and pressure if we don’t follow through.”

Playing pretend, we think, benefits ourselves and our relationships with others.

“The evolutionary argument is that if we want to convince other people that we’re stronger than we are, then we have to pretend,” adds Dan Ariely, psychology professor at Duke University, Wall Street Journal columnist and best-selling author behind The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. He says: “It’s easier to do it when you’re convincing yourself.”

But the deception is perhaps most concerning as the health care industry begins to team up with fitness-tracking companies to evaluate individuals at home and in the workplace.

Per its website, fitness tracking company Fitbit already offers a number of so-called “Corporate Wellness Solutions,” whereby companies provide their employees with Fitbit bands and track employee fitness levels. The goals, as explained on Fitbit’s website, are threefold: decrease sick leave days, decrease health care costs and increase employee productivity.

Whether the fitness company’s “corporate solutions” are viable ones, given all our deceitful manipulation, remains to be seen. Especially since Fitbit users can manually input into Fitbit’s designated app the various exercises they’ve completed and the food they’ve consumed.

“The health care industry recognizes that consumer engagement isn’t an area that can be truly quantified the way other areas can,” says Ellen Halle, an associate at Oxeon Partners, a health care consultancy based in New York City. “Health care companies can’t rely on the validity of calorie and healthy-lifestyle data.”

Halle and her Oxeon peers participate in inter-office fitness initiatives, whereby employees in teams wear Jawbones, yet another silicone-band tracker, and compete for exercise-fueled prizes. “It’s pretty fair,” she says of the competition, “but we aren’t using the platform for the purpose of explicitly improving health or reducing health care costs.”

The danger, of course, is that what we want our bands to set a new standard for honesty, making the gadgets moot. As Ariely says: “We often remember what we said or wrote better than reality.”