The Hidden Danger of Fitness Tracking

What’s the point of doing this move if her watch can’t track it? Hmmm?!

Exercise is getting more and more popular, which is good. Fitness trackers from Fitbits to phone apps are also increasing in popularity. It’s good that people are becoming more aware of how active they are, but it comes with a subtle, dangerous downside.

Can Exercise Awareness Go Too Far?

There was a time when people were very active naturally. Their lifestyle was conducive to lots of movement—walking, lifting things, working with their hands, etc. People didn’t know how many steps they took per day, but it was probably a lot.

Today, technology and conveniences have made it entirely possible to remain more or less motionless for as long as you wish. This arguably necessitates the need for things like fitness trackers, but it also creates a problem.

When you view exercise as a special thing (and tracking it implies that), you might actually choose to avoid it if it doesn’t fit your current objectives or if it won’t “count” in one of your tracking systems. For example, I try to do something exercise-related every day, but I’ve found myself thinking things like, “I don’t think I’ll play basketball today since I worked out already.” That thought doesn’t always come from how I feel physically, it usually comes from the idea that I might “waste” energy by doing two forms of exercise today, and that maybe I should space my exercise out so that I’ll get the most “credit” for it.

Do you see the problem here?

If simply moving around and enjoying life as an active person becomes merit-based, you may subconsciously avoid it if you know you won’t be rewarded or given “enough” credit for it.

This is a huge problem because it devalues all the little active choices that can enhance your life and improve your health. Walking or biking places instead of driving isn’t merely a way to burn more calories, it’s often more enjoyable. That’s in addition to the life-giving health benefits. Because of the health problems plaguing society due to inactivity, we’ve become obsessed with the health impact of being active, and have perhaps forgotten a little bit about how fun it can be to live an active lifestyle, or that being active isn’t as hard or special as we make it out to be.

I don’t say this as a finger pointer, but as someone who has noticed this problematic shift in my own mind. I used to play basketball for up to 6 hours straight (probably overdoing it!), and I never saw it as “a great exercise session.” It was just so much fun to play. I used to play football outside with my friends, never as a way to burn calories and get shredded abs, but because it was literally my favorite thing to do!

As a kid, I would almost always prefer to play sports outside than even video games. But as I’ve gotten older and “wiser,” and learned about how important exercise is, I’ve become more “cautious” about it in a way. This is, of course, completely opposite of what we want. When it comes to being active, we should all be a little bit reckless in our approach. We should take extra walks, do more random push-ups, take the stairs for the heck of it, and go a little bit crazy in the gym (without risking injury, of course).

But exercise is now a big deal, and we tend to measure it as we’re following a recipe. People don’t say, “I lived actively today,” they say, “I ran 2.5 miles today.” The specificity is a slap in the face of what it means to be active. Active people don’t need to know how many miles they ran, or steps they took. They just know they ran as usual and walked around a lot as usual.

This is not a cry to ban fitness tracking, it’s a wake up call to all of us. It’s a reminder about what it means to be active. Yes, measured doses of exercise like running two miles are fantastic and very good for you. And for some people, measured doses work best. But beyond measured doses of exercise, major health and life benefits are found in the little extra activities we can choose (not) to do.

To see where you stand on this, I’ll ask you a question.

Let’s say you ran a total of six miles today, and people thought you only ran two. How much would that bother you? You’d receive all of the benefits of running six miles, but you’d only get “credit” for two. I think a lot of people today might prefer to run two and get credit for six miles than the reverse, just because we’ve become overly obsessed with specifics and and share so much of our lives with others now.

Special Activities Die, Normal (Routine) Activities Last

This is particularly a bothersome trend to me because I know about habit formation. As long as a behavior is “special” in some way to you, it has very little chance to become habitual. The brain won’t see a habit as something special, because habits are the very foundation of your behavior and life. Nobody besides construction workers are impressed with house foundations, but all of the pretty stuff we see above ground can thank the foundation for existing. In the same way, your life foundations (habits) will determine your success or failure in looking and feeling good.

So if you find yourself counting every step you take, every weight you lift, and for that matter, every calorie you eat, you might want to consider that maybe you’re missing the point. Being active and healthy was never about counting things, it was about living in a particular way, with a particular mindset.

Final Word

It bears repeating that I think fitness tracking is good.

If fitness tracking makes you more active, keep using it. But don’t rely on it to guide all of your activity. Look for opportunities to be active on your own. Anytime you depend on something outside of yourself for progress, you haven’t really changed.

I’m on a cruise ship right now, and I started out with a rule that I had to always take the stairs. With the buffet always there, I figured it’s the least I can do. But since applying that rule, I’ve found myself taking the stairs more in general, even when it’s not expected. This is what we want! Fitness tracking can be a good initial motivator and guide, but we should look to become self-sufficient over time.

Example: A beginner chef might start out by following recipes, but master chefs will know when to break away from the recipes, take risks, and try new things. The master chef doesn’t care as much about getting the recipe right as he does getting the dish right. It’s no different with living a healthy lifestyle. It’s not about the number of steps or calories, it’s about how you generally live. Steps and calories can be evidence of how you live, but they aren’t the whole story, and should not be our guiding light in the long term as we pursue a healthy lifestyle.

Let’s look to be active in ways that don’t show up on fitness apps. Let’s eat healthy foods off the record. Let’s pursue a life of health beyond a “measured dose of fitness.”

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