The dark side of Fitbit-style fitness trackers

by Nicky Pellegrino / 03 March, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

Personal trackers are all the rage as people strive to get fitter, but there can be a downside to obsessing about daily activity levels.

Wearable fitness trackers have been getting a bit of bad press lately. Some studies have ­questioned whether ­completing 10,000 steps a day is enough to improve health. Others have identified a darker side to the technology, with one UK study ­finding a large proportion of users were feeling under pressure to reach their targets, and that their daily routines were being controlled by the device. Some of the women surveyed by researchers at the UK’s Ashridge Executive Education business school saw their Fitbits as the enemy and felt less motivated to exercise.

Digital self-tracking isn’t likely to go away any time soon. We live in the age of the quantified self, and technology is adapting quickly to help us log more aspects of our daily lives and performance. A wearable-tech company called Athos has developed smart fitness clothes with built-in sensors to track how your muscles are used during a workout, as well as your heart rate and breathing. Or you could wear a biometric wristband and keep tabs on your heart rate, skin temperature and blood oxygen.

However, self-tracking isn’t really a new thing. “Recently, it’s become digitised, but people have been keeping food diaries or logging their training for sports for a long time,” says Marianne Clark, a research fellow at the University of Waikato.

Clark has been working on a New Zealand-based research project, doing in-depth interviews with Fitbit-wearing mothers around the country. And there’s good news as well as bad.

Researcher Marianne Clark. Photo/Wayne Mead

“Overall, a lot of the women liked wearing the Fitbit,” says Clark. “They thought it was helping them become more active. Seeing the number­ of steps they took made them feel good, and this positive ­reinforcement ­motivated them to take more exercise.”

Clark didn’t measure the women’s activity, but relied on personal reports of how active they had been. So although she can’t show that any of the women have improved their physical health as a result of using a tracker, she has found some psychological positives.

First, it felt good to get a virtual pat on the back from Fitbit when they reached their daily goal. “It gave them a sense of accomplishment,” says Clark.

The women also enjoyed being able to put a number on their day’s ­activity. “They liked seeing their progress. The ­digital data made whatever activity they did real for them. If they forgot to put on their Fitbit when they went for a walk, it felt as if it didn’t count.”

These women developed a real ­relationship with their Fitbits.

“It becomes part of the woman’s life,” says Clark. “For some, it’s a way to ­negotiate more me-time with their ­partner, and it’s tangible proof they are going for a run and taking steps to be healthy. And it changes the way they interact with spaces and their neighbourhoods.”

The women said they felt better because they were moving more – one had taken to doing extra laps of the supermarket while grocery shopping to get her step count up. And rather than the devices controlling their lives, some had made decisions not to wear them on weekends because that was family time.

Obviously, there was a downside. If they didn’t reach their goal, they could see it. There was no hiding from the number and it could leave them feeling bad about themselves.

“There is a big emphasis on data and numbers today,” says Clark. “A sense that if we can quantify ourselves, we can really know ourselves. But the numbers are never contextual. There is a danger of becoming preoccupied by a number that doesn’t take into account the whole picture of what is going on in your day.”

Although her participants freely chose to use their trackers, there are reports of companies incorporating them into employee wellness programmes. Clark was interested to receive a Fitbit as a thank­ you from a private health insurer after buying cover. She recognises there are some red lights, too, with questions about how this data might be used and who might use it.

“I can be a bit obsessive, so wearing a Fitbit wasn’t going to be great for me,” she says. “But if I did wear one, I’d try to be thoughtful and reflective about how I was using it. I’m not sure why the Fitbit on my wrist would be the expert on my body. I’m the expert.”

This article was first published in the February 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


Why Marlborough, the jewel of NZ's wine industry, is your next destination
My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell
109522 2019-08-15 00:00:00Z Humour

My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell

by Michelle Langstone

Michelle Langstone on being injured.

Read more
Requests denied, delayed and redacted
109441 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Requests denied, delayed and redacted

by Mike White

Frustrations of the fourth estate.

Read more
Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust
109503 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust

by Craig McCulloch

The census botch-up has prompted fears the debacle will do long-lasting damage to the public's trust in statistics.

Read more
Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable Anne Lister
109439 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Television

Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable An…

by The Listener

A historical drama about a 19th-century landowner who secretly diarised her relationships with women comes to Neon.

Read more
Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora
108448 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Books

Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora

by Craig Sisterson

In his first post-Hannibal Lecter book, Thomas Harris heads for Elmore Leonard territory.

Read more
Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ cuisine
109468 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ c…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs traces the evolution of eating in NZ, from the spartan diet of the war years to the vibrant multi-ethnic melting pot of cuisines...

Read more
The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo
109526 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo

by Jenny Ling

Anna Valentine holds cooking workshops in the kitchen of her century-old kauri villa in Kāeo.

Read more