I was recently gifted a smartwatch. And the first thing I did with it was turn off all of the health tracking features. Seems a bit of a strange move, I know. Having something so fancy and expensive on my wrist but only using it to alert me to select calls and messages… Why not use the activity tracker? The heart rate monitor? The blood oxygen measurements during sleep? The bioelectrical impedance analysis that calculates body fat percentage?
Because Fitbit-style health trackers can do more harm than good.
Here’s an old school example. When my workplace gave out pedometers a few years back for a walking competition, I took one and joined a team. The team to walk the furthest over the month would win a prize. A friendly competition to help employees be healthy, right? Not for me.
After working my ass off deadlifting at the gym the first night, I looked at the step count. Only 5,000 steps… And I was looked to as the fittest member of the team… How was it going to look if I emailed in only 5,000 steps? My legs were already shaking from my deadlift efforts but I dragged myself on to the treadmill to up my step count.
It only got worse from there. If I forgot to put on the pedometer to walk from the bedroom to the bathroom in the middle of the night, it was steps wasted. If I didn’t make 10,000 that day I was pacing around in the dark at night, trying to get 10,000 in before midnight. I no longer wanted to go for a walk with a friend at lunchtime because she didn’t walk fast enough – it was better for my step count if I just jogged up and down the back staircase of the office alone.
If only took about three days of wearing the pedometer for me to go completely off the rails with it. I knew I was out of hand so I took the thing off, put it my drawer, and made up my numbers for the rest of the month.
Sound familiar? At the time, I reminded myself of both my mother and my father…
For years Mum and Dad wore pedometers and had a daily competition over who did the most steps. My father took great pride in chalking upwards of 10,000 steps a day and could be seen pacing back and forth to make sure he reached his target. But, despite cycling everywhere, my mother often struggled to get the pedometer to recognise that as steps, and she did not take kindly to losing. Growing up, she would give her pedometer to us kids and instruct us to run around while she cooked dinner and folded laundry and did other work that didn’t involve a lot of walking.
Fast forward a decade or two and she gave her pedometer to my toddler son while visiting us. She told him if he shook it the numbers on it would change. I laughed out loud seeing my little boy artificially inflate the step count so that Mum could win the competition for a change.
When I was the one wearing a pedometer, I was like my father in that I obsessed over the step count. But it wasn’t in the fun way that he did. He was always smiling when he walked around, enjoying the game. I was much more like my mother in that the step count made me feel anxious and insecure. Only I didn’t have her wisdom to just not take it seriously.
The workplace walking competition still goes ahead every year but I just politely decline. Tracking my movement takes the fun out of movement for me. And I know I’m not alone.
There is a recurring theme in a lot of the ‘health’ industry that basically equates to this: you can’t trust yourself, your instincts, your body. You need to be told what to do and you need to buy this thing, or do this programme, or see this ‘expert’ to tell you.
My partner wore the watch for fun for one night. He had a shitty sleep and he said to me the next morning, “I didn’t need the watch to tell me I didn’t sleep well. I already knew it.” If you track your sleep, what’s the first thing you do upon waking? Check the watch. Let’s say you feel rested and energized but the watch says you didn’t have enough quality sleep. I bet that’s a slap in the face. It probably just spikes your stress hormones and causes unnecessary worry. Hardly healthy. And if you really didn’t get enough sleep? I’m betting that, like my partner, you don’t need the watch to tell you so.
Fitbit and other health trackers have exploded in popularity in recent years, but I’m betting the obsessive tracking of health measures has more of a role in degrading health than aiding it. When you’re in a meeting and your watch beeps at you that you’ve been inactive too long, what are you meant to do? Chances are you carry on with the meeting, but you feel bad about it.
Now Fitbit has filed a patent to track your mental health. It sounds something like you play a game designed to assess your cognitive ability and they combine it with all the other health tracking data. The end result I’m not sure about: do they tell you that you’re at high risk of depression? I don’t know about you but being told I’m depressed if I don’t feel that I am, might just make me a bit depressed. And being told I’m depressed if I do feel that I am, well, that’s nothing I didn’t already know. Seems more likely they’re aiding a mental health crisis than actually helping…
So, Fitbit – friend or foe? For those rare specimens among us like my dad, who can wear one and treat it all as a fun game and not get too caught up in it, I guess it’s not harmful. But neither does it probably do much to help your health, because it’s not really telling you anything useful that didn’t already intuitively know. And for the rest of us, it’s straight up bad for our health.
I’ll still use my smartwatch but only for two things. Firstly, so that I can keep my phone permanently on silent and, more often than not, stuffed in the bottom of my bag, yet still be alerted if my son’s childcare or my partner need to contact me. And the second thing I’ll use it for is to check the time. You know, like a watch.