The Excuse Man

Writers sometimes succumb to the need to meet a deadline or the ulterior motives that lead them to the keyboard in the first place. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened when Nir Eyal wrote “Your Fitness App is Making You Fat.” Had Eyal written this as one of my composition students, he’d have earned a decent grade but gotten a healthy dose of critical comments for the weakness of his argument.

Fitness apps are all the rage. A raft of new companies and products want to track your steps and count your calories with the aim of melting that excess blubber. There’s just one problem — most of these apps don’t work. In fact, there is good reason to believe they make us fatter.

Like a good college Freshman, Eyal provides three strands of support for his attention-grabbing thesis. (And hey, he did get me to read the column, right?) Of course, he really doesn’t provide the smoking gun to prove his point, but let’s not nitpick. So what, in this writer’s universe, is  wrong with fitness apps?

First–and this is going to shock you–MyFitnessPal is not a personal registered dietician. It focuses on calories in and calories out, ignoring the other factors that lead to weight gain and loss. Eyal points out that to the app, “a calorie of high-fructose corn syrup is the same as a calorie of protein,” which is more or less true. But honestly, if anyone using such an app thinks that a diet of Snickers bars is the same as a diet of varied fresh food, they probably deserve to pack on some pounds. As someone who has used MyFitnessPal for over a year and a half, I can say that, while not perfect, its calorie-based records tend to correlate with my weight fluctuations awfully well.

Second–again, a shock–exercise can lead to injury. Huh? Yes, that’s actually a major part of his second premise. Apparently, the injuries that come from exercise can all be blamed on MapMyRun. Before that product arrived, no one got hurt. Oh, and exercise makes us hungry leading us to eat. This explains why world-class marathoners and professional cyclists are typically lugging around enormous beer guts. Honestly, whatever negatives come from exercise, they existed long before the apps.

Third–fitness apps are not magical things that create wonder and delight in our lives. Eyal’s logic gets a bit tortured here. Your new FitBit is boring. Therefore, you stop using it. Therefore, you gain weight. Do the more boring apps cause us to gain weight faster? What our author neglects to mention is that a fitness app is a tool. Tools don’t have to be exciting, habit-forming, or utterly transformative. They have to do a job. My bicycle tire pump is not exciting, but it is effective. I’d rather not have to use it, but I am glad it is there.

Nir Eyal specializes in the psychology of habit-forming products, so is it any wonder that he tries to create a need for his own products–books and blog–by pointing out the perceived flaws in fitness apps? Many people in the fitness world spend their time and marketing budgets trying to convince us that we’re eating the wrong foods, performing the wrong exercises, or wearing the wrong clothes when we eat or exercise. Not surprisingly, those people tend to have the right foods (or diet plans), the right exercise plans and equipment, and the snazziest of clothes to sell. And they take all the major credit cards.

Curiously, Eyal doesn’t diss fitness apps in order to sell his own. He’s like the guy who points out all the faults in churches to justify sleeping in on Sunday. With his wealth of insight, I would expect this writer to be hard at work designing the killer fitness app. Given the popularity of the genre, it seems obvious that he could earn more from that effort than from a so-so blog entry.