Wearable fitness tracking devices were available in consumer-grade electronics by at least the early 2000s. The first trackers were essentially nicer looking pedometers with a few additional capabilities like calorie expenditure and heart rate. Today the wearable devices have become sleek, thin watches worn as statements of a healthy lifestyle with a futuristic fashion forward style.
Much of the appeal of activity trackers that makes them effective tools in increasing personal fitness for some individuals comes from their making it into a game of sorts, and from the social dimension of sharing your results. The device can serve as a means of identification with a community of like-minded people who perhaps are competitive and want to stay in shape.
I had never used a wearable fitness tracker until recently. A few months ago my entire company received an email from our HR team explaining how we would begin a new health challenge and anyone who signed up would receive Fit Bits to track their steps. The challenge was to beat out other teams over an eight week period in number of steps to win a cash prize and bragging rights. I happened to be training for the Chicago marathon at the exact time so I figured that as long as my assigned team wasn’t awful we would have a good chance at winning.
I was logging between fifteen to twenty miles on the weekends, walking to and from work, taking my dog on multiple walks a day. The numbers that appeared on my trackers screen where never satisfying for me. I would constantly check my ranking on the company’s wellness portal. Third place, eighth then back to third then fifth. Up and down the list multiple times a day.
I started taking the long way to work. I would wind, zigzagging, through my neighborhood streets in South Boston trying to get in as many steps as possible. And yet, I was annoyed at the total numbers at the end of the day no matter how high I ranked among my company of 500+.
I’ve always been fairly active but I’m not very competitive, or so I had thought. Seeing other colleagues ranking higher than me made me annoyed. I was active! I hardly even sat down during the day! How does this make any sense!
Always one to look into new running gear I had done research on fitness trackers and GPS watches years ago but decided I’d stick with my running app which I use on my iPhone, kept securely in my handy running waist pack. When my company offered a free fitness tracker I thought, sure why not, maybe it’ll motivate me to get in more miles.
A few weeks into the challenge, I had grown frustrated. Not only with myself (I never placed first) but with the technology. I would run and my iPhone app would tell me I logged in 18 miles but the Fit Bit would say I did 15 miles. I realized both devices track different units, strides and miles. Of course I’d have 15 miles worth of steps on an 18 mile run because my strides were longer. After making this connection I started manually adding in the additional miles that the Fit Bit would miss.
I do not feel any fitter than before beginning the challenge. The motivation created by the steps measured on my Fit Bit were anxiety inducing. I was feeling stressed out trying to “feed” the Fit Bit steps. It literally buzzes and tells you things like “take me for a stroll?” or “250 more to win the hour!” and I always gave into it. I would see those words come through ticker style and off I’d go begrudgingly. I was in a toxic relationship with my fitness tracker and it wasn’t helping me be any fitter. Each step I took belonged to my tracker.
I’m sure that many types of fitness trackers have helped people get more active and stay in shape, and that’s great! But I have been active my whole life and at 27, a fitness tracker is only another gadget that I have to rely on. I have a smart TV, Roku, Netflix, Hulu, Audible and Amazon Prime subscriptions, I order my groceries online from time to time, and I have an Instagram, a twitter account and a website, two email accounts, an iPhone, an iPad mini and a kindle reader. This is already more tech than I need. All of these have nothing to do with fitness. My relationship to tech for the most part is not conducive to fitness. When I think about electronics I do not associate them with an active life, they are for the most part, indulgent conveniences.
For me, running is my form of meditation. I feel a massive sense of “flow” when I’m running that I hardly ever feel when doing anything else. I always run outdoors because treadmills feel stifling. I put my phone on airplane mode and I start up my running app, pop in my earbuds, play an audio book and go. That is all the room for technology I have when I run. No distractions just me and a story and my miles. These are my miles. They belong to me.