“Fitbits could ruin your workout,” warned London’s Daily Telegraph and at least a dozen other newspapers — just in time to derail my New Year’s resolutions. Turns out that a new study concluded that Fitbits, Jawbones and other fitness trackers might not be all they’re cracked up to be.
“Measuring all that physical activity is a pernicious double-edged sword,” according to the study’s author, Jordan Etkin, a professor of marketing at Duke University, whose research will be published in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. “Enjoyable activities, like exercise, can become almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun.” In other words, tracking all those steps, floors and calories can make working out, even walking, feel like a drag. Sure, now you tell me.
About a year or so ago, many of my health-conscious friends started sporting activity trackers on their wrists. Suddenly any conversations among these “sporterati” quickly turned to their target number of 10,000 steps, which Fitbit has preset as a one-size-fits-all goal. Did you achieve it? Surpass it? Not to mention that their wrists now started to flash with “durable elastomer” (a.k.a. synthetic rubber) in hues of lime, tangerine and violet.
I didn’t buy in to the tracker craze at first, for several reasons. The first was personal: “My name is Steven and I’m an iPhone addict” — which is to say that I’ve been trying to unplug, not find a new way to plug in. Second, as much of a “modern” as I’d like to be, I’m no early adopter when it comes to tablets, smart watches or health trackers. Oh, and one more thing: I didn’t like any of the Fitbit’s color choices.
But I’m not immune to a good deal, so last summer when I saw an ad offering 20 percent off, I was wavering. And the tipping point: The Fitbit now came in slate blue, a color I like. I placed my one-click order.
Two days later my Fitbit arrived in the mail. From the get-go I liked how it looked on my arm. Yes, it might be true that I rolled up my sleeves more often than I had before, just to make sure others noticed I had joined this elite club. (You may have seen owners of Apple Watches with a similar tic, frequently raising their arms to check their watch — but really to make sure you get a better view of it.)
Off I went in pursuit of my 10,000 steps, a metric the American Heart Association agrees is a good daily goal for health and cardiac fitness. And pretty soon I was an addict-in-the-making. In spin class I tied my Fitbit through my shoelaces to make sure every spin or step counted. Zoe, my Jack Russell terrier, never had so many walks in her life. She seemed as excited by my new toy as I was, especially when it vibrated and flashed in celebration when I reached my daily goal.
My Fitbit honeymoon came to a crashing end after about eight weeks, when it became clear that my regular dog walks were barely getting me to the 10,000-step mark — as my Fitbit “told”me. If Zoe and I missed one walk, I missed my goal — and that left me unhappy. Worse, since my Fitbit couldn’t count pool laps, it proved useless in tracking the exercise I did on half the days of the week.
Like others who came up short of the daily goal, I started to do crazy things. I’d take Zoe (who, for the record, is 13 years old) for yet another tour of the ’hood. For the first time in her life she didn’t seem at all excited when I uttered the words “Wanna go for a walk?” Instead of bounding for the door she’d dig further under her blanket, certainly reminding me of the aphorism “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Sometimes just before bed, I’d walk around the house just to hit my 10,000 steps. Others tell me how they march in place, swinging their arms, to make their goal. No, I was not happy. Fitbit and I definitely had hit a rough patch in our relationship.
Perhaps you know where this is going. Was the Fitbit good for my heart? Yes. Fun? Less and less so. Sustainable? I didn’t think so.
As the fall days got shorter and I’d been wearing the gizmo (I now saw it as a gizmo) for about 12 weeks, there were some days when I forgot to put it on and others when I chose not to wear it. “It feels too heavy and cumbersome,” I’d think to myself. Or, “It doesn’t go with that shirt.” Just before Christmas, I started a trial separation.
Yes, I’m fully aware that many have benefited by wearing health trackers. Mike Fredericksen, a 58-year-old friend of mine, told me his fitness tracker has helped him lose more than 20 pounds, eat healthier and sleep better. “I’ve gone from borderline diabetic to a safe zone,” he said, and he’s now a regular exerciser. That’s fantastic, and I hope he continues.
But others told a different story. Another friend, a woman in her 40s, explained: “I realized that there were a couple weeks where I took it off because it was making me feel bad when I was ‘failing,’ so why do that to myself?” A spin instructor at a studio near where I live in Durham, N.C., told me most people in his classes now wear fitness trackers “and all through a spin session they’re glancing at them. Sometimes a participant will tell me my routine was — or was not — difficult based on calories expended or miles cycled. Never mind their own physical input or lack of it: The success of my class is measured” against the fitness tracker readout.
My negativity corresponded with the findings of the Duke study. When I asked Etkin, the study’s author, how she’d come to examine the role of fitness trackers, she explained that after giving her father a Fitbit, “he became much more stressed about how much he walked, focused on those quantitative outcomes, when previously he’d just walked for fun.” The problem, she said. is this: “Even though tracking output can encourage us to do more, it also sucks the fun out of activities we previously enjoyed, which makes us enjoy them less and be less likely to keep doing them in the future.”
That had proved true for my terrier, and finally for me. So I gave it up, which is to say my Fitbit and I broke up.
In the weeks since then, I’ve slowly came to another realization about measuring my athletic activity. In high school I’d been a competitive swimmer, but I really only knew how to swim against the clock in a 25-meter pool and to count my strokes per length. I graduated with my varsity letter but then stopped swimming entirely because I’d come to hate competing.
I didn’t swim laps for more than a decade.
Then, missing the water, I tried a new approach: No clock. No counting. What a mess that was at first: I floundered; I crashed into the wall doing my turns; I gulped in water instead of air. I realized, after several clumsy attempts, that I simply didn’t know how to swim without measurement or quantification. At that moment I didn’t want to think about what this meant more broadly for my life, but I recognized that for swimming, there had to be another way. And slowly I learned how to measure my own breaths, use my eyes to navigate and, finally, manage my speed by swimming to the beat of my own heart.
For the first time in my life I discovered that I loved swimming, feeling untethered from the world and at one with the water and the sky (at least when in an outdoor pool). From then on, I started to swim farther and more frequently. But don’t ask me how many strokes, laps or miles I’ve done. I couldn’t tell you. I wouldn’t even want to know, because it doesn’t matter to me — because I’m having fun. And staying healthy in the process.
Petrow is The Post’s Civilities columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow.