In the past year or so, fitness trackers have been on the rise as a popular fitness trend. Marketed by companies such as Fitbit, Jawbone, and Garmin, these trackers are small electronic devices worn around the wrist that can measure all sorts of aspects of one’s physical fitness. The prices of the devices vary depending on the number of things they can measure or monitor—such as heart rate, steps taken, calories burned, and sleep—and their durability, such as their waterproof capability. While tracking various aspects of one’s activity seems like a conscious and intelligent way to manage one’s health, does obsessing over these things cause detriment to one’s mindset? To find out, I did a little self-experiment.
I own a Fitbit Flex. This fitness tracker is one of the simplest versions that Fitbit offers, but that’s not to say it does nothing. With it, I can monitor the number of calories I’ve burned, the number of miles I’ve walked, and the number of steps I’ve taken. I can also log the exercise I’ve done throughout the day (e.g. Stairclimber for 30 minutes, starting at 1:30 p.m.) and it will give me an estimate of the calories I burned doing so. It also can track my sleep automatically—it’s not always precise, but the Flex can generally tell what time I fell asleep and what time I woke up based on my movement, and can then report times during the night where I was restless or awake with surprising accuracy. If that weren’t enough, it also gives me the option to log how much water I’ve had during the day and the calories I’ve eaten, using a huge U.S. food database.
When you purchase a Fitbit of any kind, it sets you up with a set of baseline goals which you can increase or decrease to your liking. These goals include taking 10,000 steps, walking five miles, burning 2,000 calories, exercising 30 minutes, and getting eight hours of non-restless sleep in a day. These goals may sound lofty, but they all overlap (except for the sleep) and are attainable by anyone with a reasonable desire to fulfill them. When you hit your goal step count during the day, the Fitbit will vibrate around your wrist, which is incredibly gratifying. However, this feature may have become the bane of my existence.
Since I’ve owned the tracker for almost a year and a half, I’ve increased the goal limits—now, I aim to get 13,500 steps, walk 6.5 miles, and get 45 minutes of exercise. Even so, I feel as though I should increase the goals further. Throughout the day, I am constantly checking my progress using the Bluetooth on the device and the Fitbit app, and am often anxiously anticipating the little buzz around my wrist to tell me I’ve succeeded. If I’ve had a good or poor night’s rest, I’ll check my Fitbit for its assessment, which usually shows I slept even worse than expected—thus, throughout the day I feel more tired than I would have, knowing that I didn’t rest well.
By relying on the Fitbit’s measurements, I also use it to justify when I’ll eat. Instead of eating right when I’m hungry, I might check the Flex and see that I’ve gone a mere 2,000 steps—not nearly enough to be that hungry. Similarly, I may eat a ton of food if I go above and beyond my goal (e.g. 16,000 steps) because I feel as though I’ve earned it. This makes me sound like a crazy person, and I think that I probably am. For this reason, I decided to do a little test.
Over spring break, I was on the ALI Level II Backcountry and Raft trip. I knew my Flex wouldn’t have the battery power for the trip, nor would it be safe from the water, so I left it at CC and decided to see how I’d function without being so tethered to the device.
For starters, I no longer worried so much about my sleep. I was already sleeping in a tent every night in the cold—who cares how many minutes I was restless or awake? The important thing was getting any good rest. Being in the rafts, I realized I definitely wasn’t taking many steps or walking many miles at all; but I was still getting exercise. From breaking down and setting up camp each day, to rigging the oar rigs, to scouting rapids, to paddling around 10-20 miles every day, I was certainly getting a workout. I didn’t need to justify my eating or my fitness based on steps. I knew I was working my body, and I responded to it appropriately with food and water. In other words, I was functioning like a normal person again.
I realized that while a Fitbit can help one push their physical limits and aim to move more each day, it also can create an unhealthy dependence. It’s far more important to actually listen to your body than to make decisions for it based on what a device tells you. So fitness enthusiasts be warned: get a fitness tracker and you might become similarly obsessive.