*** This blog post evolved out of a conservation I had with some friends in my Facebook community. They have given me permission to share their thoughts below***
Pedometers. Smartwatches. Health monitors. Wearable fitness trackers. They’re all part of the emerging landscape of wearable technology. A landscape which promises to change the way we exercise and communicate with one another about fitness.
Many will keep track of your daily steps, calories burned and pattern of sleeping. Most can connect with your phone, be it Android or OS. Some can track your heart rate in real time and even provide statistics on elevation gained and distance travelled during exercise.
While I love that more and more people are wearing these devices and becoming increasingly aware of their daily level of physical activity, and that many devices have built in accountability and support communities, I do think that there’s a dark side to wearable fitness trackers.
I recently participated in a two-week ‘step challenge’ with a dozen other bloggers. Despite my relatively active lifestyle, I finished near the middle of the pack, literally hundreds of thousands of steps behind the winners.
This experience made me stop and question the general value of wearable fitness trackers.
While I appreciate the potential benefits of tracking one’s daily activity (heck, my favourite way to use mine is as a reminder to get up and move on those days when I’ve been sitting at my computer too long), I also believe there’s the possibility that they may discourage some people from making appropriate fitness choices.
The dark side of wearable fitness trackers
- Might some people benefit more from them than others? I think wearable fitness trackers are a fantastic accountability tool for those just getting started with fitness (or those who have no idea what their day’s activity looks like). But for those who are already fairly active, the information they provide is unlikely to result in behaviour change. Sure, it’s nice to feel that little vibration when you’ve hit your daily step count and great to see your weekly activity report showing that you’re ‘in the blue’ most days, but are there other ways you can measure your progress that don’t involve counting steps?
- Is the emphasis on step count, above all other activity, misleading when it comes to improving health and fitness? Although there are numerous studies linking increased daily step counts with a variety of health improvements (increased weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, decreased blood cholesterol levels, to name a few), the same benefits (and more) can also be achieved by swimming, cycling, yoga and lifting weights. Does encouraging people to achieve 10 000 steps a day (which requires most of us to include at least an hour long walk in our already full days) lead to them prioritizing walking over other activities? Activities whose contributions to health and fitness might be more important to them, depending on age, health and goals.
- Is it useful to categorize a person’s activity level by simply the number of steps they take in a day? According to the activity categories of the ’10 000 steps a day’ campaign, many very physically fit people would be categorized as ‘sedentary’ or only ‘moderately active’ only because they choose to spend their daily exercise time doing something other than walking. Take me, for example. After an hour of heavy strength training, I’ll typically have racked up only 1000 or so steps. If I had spent the same 60 minutes walking the treadmill (without building muscle or improving bone density), my count would have been pushing my daily 10 000 steps goal. Given the push to share one’s activity tracker data via social media, there’s the potential for feelings of shame or inadequacy. Or even worse, the feeling like one needs to do more to avoid appearing slothful.
- Is there the potential for wearable fitness trackers to trigger the same ‘compulsiveness’ some experience around calorie counting and the bathroom scales? As a scientist, I value data. It allows us to quantify our behaviour and make changes if that behaviour is not leading us towards our goals. Not everyone is capable of such an un-emotional response to numbers. Many people, women in particular, become obsessive about tracking the number of calories they consume and let the number on the bathroom scale dictate their mood for the day (I know, I’ve been there). I believe there’s a real possibility that fitness activity trackers could trigger the same response in some individuals, resulting in a negative effect on physical activity and fitness in general.
- Is there a subconscious tendency to consume more calories later in the day because our wearable fitness tracker says we burned ‘x’ number of calories? I believe so, given the ‘how many burpees do I need to do to burn off a Mars bar’ mindset I see so often on social media. Combine this ‘reward’ philosophy with the notoriously inaccurate counts generated by most calorie counters (i.e., they almost always over-estimate how many calories burned and we, as humans, tend to under-estimate how many we consume…) it’s easy to undermine the metabolic benefits of exercise.
- Are people actually using all the data they’re generating to make changes to their behaviour? While data is great to have, unless you’re actually doing something with it, what’s the point? When scientists design experiments, they collect only the data they need to test their hypothesis (collecting more is expensive and often, it’s impossible to determine outcomes and effects if there are too many variables to include in the analysis). Other than using their pedometers as a reminder to get up and walk around the office, I’ve seen very little evidence that the massive amounts of data being collected are actually changing people’s behaviour around fitness.
I’m curious what a longer term study of the effects of wearable activity trackers on health and obesity will reveal. Given the challenge of working with human subjects (we’re terrible at sticking to plans and have a lot of correlational variables that need to be statistically accounted for), I’m betting we won’t have a clear answer for many years to come…
Do you wear an activity tracker?
Which metrics do you pay attention to and how do they affect your behaviour?