Over the past seven or eight years I have developed a habit. Whenever I have a brief moment of quiet or boredom during the day without really thinking about it, I pull out my smartphone’s health tracking app to check my step count. If it’s late and the number is low, I might decide to go out and walk a few blocks or take the long way home. If it’s low at the end of a busy month, I might try to squeeze in a few extra long walks to pull the average up. And if it’s low at the end of a busy year, I’ll almost certainly spiral into self-blame: What exactly was I doing with my time that was more important than taking the minimum daily steps?
My guilt trip was made possible by the growing ubiquity of health tracking technology. Over the past decade, a dizzying array of smartwatches, activity tracking apps, and even high-tech activewear have flooded the market, each promising to support their users’ efforts to live their best, fittest lives. These tools count a person’s heart rate, hours of sleep, and even the length of your walk (and whether or not you should worry about it). They’re programmed into our phones, worn on our wrists, and even forced upon us by creepy employers. Entire fitness regimes, full of complex point systems and digital rewards, are designed around the data they collect. What used to be just a useful tool for health nuts has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar market. But is this deluge of data making Americans healthier?
While some people are certainly motivated to move more because their phone or watch reminds them, for others the proverbial carrot of self-optimization can become a source of dangerous preoccupation. Far from being a panacea for healthy living, these ever-present tools and the culture of self-optimization they foster can stand in the way of our well-being.
When the numbers take over
The 10,000 step benchmark has generally been a baseline goal for smartphone apps and fitness trackers. Despite the cultural buffer, the 10,000 step test was not developed by scientists. Instead, it grew out of a marketing campaign by the Japanese company Yamasa to promote its new step-counting gadget during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Actual peer-reviewed studies subsequently found that far fewer steps per day were needed to significantly reduce the risk of mortality—yet 10,000 steps remains the gold standard. The allure of 10,000 steps makes sense: It’s a nice, round number that’s easy to remember and, in East Asia, symbolizes the idea of abundance. Most importantly, it provides a health goal that is reassuringly straightforward—easier to focus on than a messy holistic picture of well-being.
Research suggests that a wellness approach actively undermines the formation of sustainable and healthy habits.
When the Fitbit tracker launched in 2009, 45 years after Yamasa’s gadget cemented the ideal of 10,000 steps in the public consciousness, it kicked off the fitness wearables boom and sparked a health data craze. Between 2010 and 2015, the company’s sales grew from 58,000 to nearly 21.4 million devices each year. Much like the iPhone revolutionized the mobile phone market, the debut of the Apple Watch eight years ago cemented the fitness wearable as a desirable lifestyle product that could pave the way for self-optimization. This flood of readily available health data has certainly had some positive effects. Numerous studies have shown that fitness trackers can give users a burst of motivation to exercise—at least in the short term. Since the vast majority of Americans do not meet the weekly exercise quotas recommended by the US Department of Health and Human Services, even small increases in exercise can have significant positive health consequences. Research shows that for every 2,000 steps a person takes each day, the risk of premature death can drop by as much as 8% to 11%.
Amanda Paluch, a physical activity epidemiologist and kinesiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the health benefits of fitness tracking technology, said that for “moderately active” individuals like me, apps and wearables can be a “great tool.” Quantifying our movement makes it easier to gradually increase daily exercise incentives, which helps prevent injury and generally allows for more activity. Many fitness trackers also include social sharing features that can give us a better look at how our exercise habits stack up against our friends and give us a bit of healthy competition as motivation.
While the feelings of guilt and anxiety I feel staring into the final hours of a 300-step workday aren’t necessarily great, if that number gets me to take a few thousand steps before the total resets to zero at midnight—which sometimes happens – then the data ends up making me healthier. It is an intermittently effective patch for all the sessions that have become part of my daily life. But despite all the benefits, this deluge of data can also create unhealthy fixations and negative consequences.
There is no one-size-fits-all health metric
Despite her pro-tracking position, Paluchová admits that living by the numbers on a scale or screen has its drawbacks. “The thing with physical activity or any type of health behavior is that it’s based on the individual,” she told me. “How much activity you need to see different health benefits — such as lowering blood pressure or improving mental health or reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease — will vary from person to person.”
The optimal fitness regimen for a person depends on a wide range of factors: their age, whether or not they have a chronic medical condition, and even their genetic makeup. This inherent variability means that trying to beat someone else’s fitness metrics or meet static goals set by an app can be a double-edged sword. Research suggests that a proactive approach to mental well-being is hard on the numbers undermines creating sustainable, healthy habits. It gamifies fitness goals without considering the bigger picture of what a particular body may need on any given day, effectively reducing the care of our complex systems to arbitrary goals. This path can be useful for those of us who need to-do lists stacked with itemized tasks to get anything done, but it does little to encourage healthy choices beyond the limited scope of hitting selected daily benchmarks. If I meet my caloric requirements with, say, a diet of pilsner and fries, it doesn’t really matter that I consume as much energy as I can burn.
When you’re obsessed with numbers, it can really – excuse my French – screw with your brain.
“If I only see my physical activity as a numerical output, then I have no choice but to think of my body as a quantity of something,” warned John Toner, professor of health sciences at the University of Hull in the UK. 2018 article published in the journal Performance Enhancement & Health. “Maybe I’m just an amount of fat or I’m only capable of a certain amount of strength.” Toner went on to explain that while measurement can motivate a person to increase the amount of activity they do, it can also reduce their intrinsic motivation to do those activities in the long run. It can even make these activities less enjoyable, turning what should be recreation into another productivity chore.
Then there’s pinging and annoying. Many health and fitness tracking apps and wearables issue alerts throughout the day to encourage users to reach their exercise goals. While these little reminders may be helpful for some, they also play into users’ insecurities about personal accomplishments and can cause people to focus too much on the numbers. In some cases, users rearrange their entire lives in harmful ways to achieve their daily goals. Studies have found that exercise tracking can be associated with a pattern of restrictive behavior in eating disorder patients, and there is increasing research into whether the use of wearable fitness trackers contributes to the development of eating disorders.
“When you’re obsessed with numbers, it can really — excuse my French — mess with your brain,” Cathleen Kronemer, a personal trainer based in St. Louis, told me. Louis. In her more than 30 years on the job, she has seen many clients focus on calories, miles, steps and pounds long before the advent of today’s technologically enhanced trackers. However, the rise of new gadgets has led to what Kronemer called techorexia, a term for people who use fitness wear to restrict food and exercise excessively. It was the same tendency, Kronemer said, that led her to a residential treatment program for anorexia in 2000, where she was fitted with a feeding tube.
Today, Kronemer sees both sides of the fitness tracking debate. While these apps and wearables aren’t the source of eating disorders and excessive exercise, they pose a real risk to people trying to separate the pursuit of health from the strict rules that fitness metrics can enforce. At the same time, he recognizes that many people benefit from the extra pressure that numbers, goals and a bit of competition can provide. Her own husband credits his Apple Watch for making him a better athlete.
“In a perfect world, people would say, ‘Let me use this data as a guide,’ as opposed to ‘Let me believe it as the Bible,'” Kronemer said. “People take it as a GPS. If it says, ‘Go straight three blocks and then turn right,’ they think, ‘I’d rather not do anything but that. And if it does, I’m a failure.’ I just think there has to be a happy medium, but Americans don’t operate on a happy medium.”
While the appeal of fitness tracking apps has a lot to do with the psychological tricks they play on individual users, they also appeal to people because they fit so easily into our fast-paced lives. Congested work schedules, car-dependent commutes, and the shameful convenience of delivery services make it harder than ever to take care of ourselves. A study by scientists from the University of Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis found that in 2016, the average American adult spent 6.5 hours a day sitting—a full hour more than in 2007. Given the continued rise of app-based conveniences, today’s number may be even higher.
These modern pressures—combined with an obsession with optimizing for efficiency—have caused Americans to push healthy habits to the sidelines. And fitness technology is here to help us squeeze it all in more easily. In fact, Japan’s original pedometer is said to have been created after an exchange between Yamasa’s founder and a doctor who suggested that the nation’s newfound prosperity had given rise to new conveniences that in turn discouraged physical activity.
The pursuit of fitness has become part of the American (over)work ethic. Rather than valuing health as something worthy of pursuit in its own right, fitness is viewed as a means to an end: People exercise to be more focused and productive at work, or to be more confident, to they were better workers, or to be more attractive in order to—you guessed it—succeed in their careers.
When the step counter on my health app reminds me of how little I’ve been moving, I feel like a failure. But in reality, these disappointing numbers usually mean that I’ve lived my days exactly as most Americans are taught: by prioritizing completing more and more tasks, and then doing everything in my power to decompress myself enough to do the whole process tomorrow repeat. When my steps are low, it is because I conscientiously work hard and put well-being last.
Fitness tracking is no silver bullet, but it is not inherently antithetical to the cause. Despite my ambivalence, I suspect I will always turn to certain technological tools to keep me honest and active, hopefully for many years to come. For others, tools can hurt more than help. Everyone and every body is different.
Kelli María Korducki is a journalist whose work focuses on work, technology and culture. He is based in New York.
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