The dark side of Fitbit-style fitness trackersby Nicky Pellegrino
Personal trackers are all the rage as people strive to get fitter, but there can be a downside to obsessing about daily activity levels.
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.
“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.”
A historical drama about a 19th-century landowner who secretly diarised her relationships with women comes to Neon.Read more
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