The uselessness of data

February 20, 2017 § 14 Comments

You own a Fitbit, admit it. And after the first month, the only thing it measures is the fitness of the socks in the bottom of the drawer, where it permanently lives now. Right?

But wait. Fitbit and other fitness trackers, also known as sock drawer weights, are supposed to provide “real-time feedback that may be particularly useful to enhance lifestyle changes that promote weight loss in sedentary overweight or obese adults.” In other words … data!

Unfortunately, after billions were spent on the false promise of changing the way America eats through Apple Watches, Fitbits and etcetera, some skeptic, probably related to Billy Stone, decided to do an actual study using science and numbers and shit to see if the sock drawer weights actually work.

One such study started off by “recruiting 197 sedentary overweight or obese adults from the greater Columbia, South Carolina area.” I bet that was pretty easy to do. What would have been a challenge is “recruiting four non-obese adults from the American South.” But I progress.

So they took these poor folks, literally, and put them into four groups.

  1. Standard Care Group. Participants received a self-directed weight loss manual based on two evidence-based programs, Active Living Every Day and Healthy Eating Every Day. The manual’s focus was to help individuals adopt a healthful eating pattern and increase their physical activity levels through the use of cognitive and behavioral strategies consistent with the Transtheoretical Model and Social Cognitive Theory. Now I don’t know what that manual or model or theory are, but they sound a lot like Coach Castoria’s 7th Grade gym class at Jane Long Junior High back in August of 1979, where a rabid and sadistic football coach would spread a class of weaklings out on a 110-degree asphalt slab and scream at us to do leg lifts until we puked, which was about twice.
  2. Intervention Group: Same manual as above, along with a diary for participants to record daily meal and lifestyle activity, emotion, or mood. The mood section was pre-filled in with “hungry and pissed off about it.”
  3. Peer Weight Loss Group: 14 sessions with a facilitator using the manuals, with a weekly weigh-in and greater emphasis on weight loss than in the original programs. One-on-one telephone counseling sessions to provide continued support and enhance weight loss maintenance.
  4. Fitness Tracker Wearers: You know who you are.
  5. Peer Weight Loss Group + Fitness Tracker: Lecturing/scolding along with a fitness tracker.

Now before we get to the results and how it affects your cycling pro masters career, a couple of key facts. First, a bunch of people quit, which tells you all you need to know about fitness and weight loss. To recap: PEOPLE MOSTLY QUIT. Get it? No matter what you buy or how many power meters you own or how studiously you learn the CdA, most people quit.

THIS PROBABLY MEANS YOU. So, save your money and go buy some socks or some super stylish underwear. I recommend products by Stance:


Moving on, what the study found is that when you do a study there are a lot of numbers. And making sense of those numbers isn’t possible because the only number that matters was previously discussed and indicates that you are going to give up, which your sock drawer weight proves you already have. More importantly, the study found — and this is truly amazing — that doing something is better than doing nothing.

And unhappily for the Fitbitters out there, it didn’t matter whether you read a manual, got counseled, or did both in tandem. As compared to doing nothing, doing something was better.

I know, I know, let’s call up the Nobel Prize committee now. However, there were a few sad qualifiers that seemed to throw the entire study into doubt, raising the awful specter that doing nothing may be just as good as doing something.

To wit: The study noted that if your participants are university students, they are pretty much worthless at doing anything: “Students were the most unreliable group in this study, and their adherence was especially poor for homework assignments and other assignments.” Parents, time to start asking for some tuition refunds from those deadbeat kids! Also, we learned that since so many people quit, weight loss is hard.

Finally, we learned that the study was conducted by one “Dr. Blair,” who receives book royalties from Human Kinetics and honoraria for service on the Scientific/Medical Advisory Boards for Alere, Technogym, Santech, and Jenny Craig. In other words, this study, which so conclusively shows that your sock drawer weight is no better than Coach Castoria, also conclusively shows that even that flimsy conclusion is dubious at best. Because, industry bias and university students.

But back to your data driven cycling career. Tell me again how all those numbers are going to make you faster? Because first we’ll need to get together a control group, and I’m not planning on going to Columbia any time soon.



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§ 14 Responses to The uselessness of data

  • Rab says:

    I was part of a university study once, run by grad students. They didn’t recruit students, I thought maybe it was an age thing and asked if that was the case. The response was something like “no, we would love to use our students but they are completely unreliable and fuck everything up, waste a bunch of time…” Thinking back to what I could recall of my college days it made perfect sense and I felt stupid for not having assumed that to start.

  • LesB says:

    The biometric trackers are too polite, that’s the problem. They should repeat this mantra over n over:


    The public humiliation from one’s wrist might drive overweight people to trim down.

  • Spinner says:

    University studies pay subjects!!!! I was in a fantastic study “of the effects of atropine given before, during, and after maximal cycling exercise”. Now think, would you not do a study that paid you 750 bucks for riding to exhaustion three times? IN THE DEAD of a Madison,Wisconsin winter and in a nice warm exercise phys lab? Hell, I was doing the same thing for FREE on the ice and snow covered roads!
    One issue I did have was riding home in the dark after one of the tests. I was supposed to have someone drive me home but I certainly didn’t need that; I was (then) a BIKE RIDER. Well, atropine has exercise effects but also affects the eyes. I got on the old trusty winter bike rode out into a very busy street where the first set of car headlights I saw blinded me. Cops gave me a ride home….Couldn’t see for four hours….

  • paulwiegand2 says:

    The first time I remember noticing a step-counter was at a dinner after a bike ride. The woman across from me had her step-counter on a necklace and her boyfriend was reaching over to bounce the device up and down (obviously for ulterior motives). The bounces did count as “steps”.

    Anyway, I have a hard time taking those trackers seriously.

  • EricW says:

    My Fitbit is in the outgoing junk pile…

    Actually, just riding a bike to get somewhere, like to the store for more beer, is the most reliable way to get some exercise. Once the mode of transportation includes exercise, people will get some health benefits.

    I don’t drive to optional events any more – lost a bunch of weight. Got a political meeting for more signs or something. That’s what I bike to. Not necessary to bike to work, just all that other stuff.

    • fsethd says:

      Totally agree. I’d throw away my Fitbit with my power meter, but I tossed that hunk of rear-wheel deadweight years ago.

      Newbie: “Thurlow, how come you don’t ride with a power meter?”

      Thurlow: “If I missed the break the power meter isn’t going to get me up to it. If I’m in the break I know what to do.”

  • dangerstu says:

    Maybe you could only ride your bike in a cabin in the woods, or a cave or something.

    But I will soon be luring you out of said hermitage with “Carbon Data” tm.

    Nice under kecks, BTW.

  • Allan says:

    Ah yes, the American South. Home of the fattest, and poorest of Americans. Also a hotbed of Trump-tler support, therefore by definition anti-ACA. Long, twisty road to get to this question…who again pays for all the medical care all these fat, poor, Trump-tler supporters need with their innumerable weight-related medical problems?

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