The Fitness Device Craze Could Be Hurting You

Fitbit, Nike+, Apple Watch, Mio – fitness technology has been booming recently, with all sorts of gear, apps, and tracking devices coming to the market in the last couple years to help people shed the pounds they packed on while binge-watching their fave 80s reboots on Netflix. Heck, even the recent Pokémon GO phenomenon could be considered something of a fitness craze, given how much it has helped characteristically sedate individuals get out and pound the pavement. (Disclaimer: Pokémon GO tells me I’ve walked 62 km since July.)

All of this attention on fitness is a good thing, right? Certainly anything that gets people active is hard to criticize. It seems at least that Michelle Obama would approve, even if none of these things have to do with her Let’s Move! Campaign.

Of course, there’s always a tradeoff when it comes to fitness. Having had bad knees for as long as I can remember – I had ACL reconstruction surgery in college and many years of painful twists and tears before that – I don’t run. I’ve tried, and it’s never worked very well for me, usually leading to loads of discomfort, stiffness, and even pain in the form of shin splints. If I were to find myself in some sort of life-or-death emergency in which running would save me, such as being chased by a bear or large cat or some other wild animal intent on mauling me, I would likely sit down, contemplate the mostly good life I’ve led, and wait for the inevitable.

A similar tradeoff has to be considered when it comes to fitness devices. Sure, strapping a pedometer to my wrist could help me track my steps throughout the day and help me stay mindful of the physical activity I perform in general. But what happens when that same device causes rashes and makes my skin blister? In that scenario, the device is probably doing more harm than good.

Unfortunately, that scenario is far from fictional. In recent years, there have been a rash of incidents involving a variety of fitness trackers.

Fitbit Force

It seems like everybody is wearing a Fitbit these days. But just a couple short years ago, Fitbit came out with a device that bit back at the people wearing them!

In late 2013, just in time for the holidays, the company released a new line of fitness trackers called the Fitbit Force. A few weeks later, wearers started noticing that the devices were causing skin-related injuries, including burns, blistering, peeling, and rashes. In response, the company said that these problems could have a number of causes, including the nickel content in the stainless steel or bacteria buildup on the device itself.

Fortunately, Fitbit did the right thing and issued a recall. Customers who bought one of the devices could return it for a full refund of the $130 price.

Fitbit Surge

More recently, another Fitbit product has been implicated in causing skin injuries as well. According to at least one consumer report, which is available at SaferProducts.gov, wearing the Fitbit Surge can also cause blisters or burns to appear.

Fitbit responded to the report as they initially had done with reports about injuries related to the Force wristband, saying that the injuries could have a number of causes. However, the company has not yet issued a recall for the Fitbit Surge. Fortunately, the customer was able to return the product back to the store where he bought it.

Basis Peak

Fitbit is one of the most well-known companies making tracking devices, but they certainly are not the only ones to have problems. The Basis Peak was one of the first fitness trackers to include a heart monitor in it as well. Unfortunately, the additional feature also appears to have put extra strain on the device, causing it to overheat.

Initially, Basis – the company that makes the Basis Peak, and a subsidiary of Intel Corporation – believed it could fix the issue with a simple software update. However, the situation turned out to be much more difficult than they first believed, and after several months the company finally acknowledged that it would not be able to fix the devices.

Given the situation, in August 2016, Basis decided to issue a full recall of its Basis Peak tracker, including the premium version of the tracker known as the Basis Titanium. Customers who return the recalled device will get the full amount of the cost of the watch, plus tax and shipping.

McDonald’s Step-iT

When adults buy fitness gear, there is a certain amount of caveat emptor (let the beware buyer!) involved in the purchase. Certainly, devices need to be safe, but as adults we have the ability to assess products to avoid or stop using them if they seem to be unsafe. When it comes to children’s devices, however, there different considerations need to be made – especially when those devices are handed out as free tchotchkes in a Happy Meal.

Just a couple weeks ago, McDonald’s issued a recall of approximately 29 million “Step-iT” activity wristbands that it had handed out in its kids’ meals over about a one-week period (from August 9 – August 17). During that time, the company received more than 70 reports about children developing blisters while wearing the wristbands. Given the harm done by the wristbands, the popular restaurant chain issued a full recall.

Those who received the wristbands (or their parents…) can bring them back to any McDonald’s restaurant. In return, they will get a different – and hopefully safer – toy as a replacement, as well as a choice between yogurt or a bag of apple slices.

Fitness Device Lawsuits

Most of the examples listed above are of relatively minor injuries. Sure, blisters and rashes are no fun, but it seems unlikely that any of the cases reported will cause severe damage. (That said, some of the Fitbit Force injuries did result in permanent scarring, according to reports.)

In some cases, however, there is some potential for greater damage. Earlier this year, Fitbit found itself at the center of a class action lawsuit, in which the claimants accused the company of creating faulty devices that inaccurately measured the wearer’s heart rate. This may at first seem like not a very big deal; however, according to legal documents in the case, at least one of the plaintiffs in the case believed his heart rate to be much lower than it was while working out, causing him to increase the intensity of his workout to dangerous levels.

A study by two scientists at California State Polytechnic University showed that on average the Fitbit devices are inaccurate by about 20 beats per minute during intensive activity. Depending on a person’s overall state of health, that level of difference could be incredibly harmful. Fitbit denies the study’s results, noting that it was paid for by the plaintiff’s legal counsel.

Nonetheless, whether the danger is a mild rash or an overworked heart, when using a fitness tracker, it’s important to understand what could go wrong. Don’t just assume that a device is perfect – listen to your body and make sensible decisions.

Actually, that’s good advice for any product you buy!