If I looked at my phone right now and decided to actually use the various tracking apps I have installed on it, I reckon I could spend at least an hour updating them. I could outline every task I had or had not completed; every morsel that had passed my lips and the quality of every bowel movement. I kid you not. There is an app that helps IBS sufferers track their symptoms through classifying their poop.
This post is not about my poop though (sorry for bringing that up again). It is about fitness trackers and why I have to stop wearing mine.
I got my fitness tracker to help me track distances whilst training for my Mind charity hike. It was a practical and useful tool to ensure I was covering the distances I needed to in order to prepare myself. I told myself that I would only wear it whilst I was actually walking and there really was no need to use it everyday. I know I am active, I go to the gym 3-4 times a week and the odd run here or there. I am training for a 40 mile hike for pete's sake, I knew I was active enough and I could not understand why you would want to use the vast number of tracking options available on the device. I am not an athlete nor a competitive runner and have no need or desire to know how long I am in the fat burning zone for. It was just for the steps. Only the steps...
Obviously, I wear it every day now.
Let me take you on a journey down the rabbit hole...
It started with just tracking my steps; I have a desk based job and I am aware that an hour of intense exercise in the evening is not enough to offset 8 hours of sedentary work, so I figured that making sure I hit my 10,000 steps a day was just a gentle way to ensure I was moving enough. Like most people who do a desk job, I kept forgetting to actually get up from my desk and walk around, so I then decided to turn on the hourly reminder to get up and walk around. This is an alarm that vibrates your watch to encourage you to get up and walk for 250 steps. It then tells you at the end of the day how well you did and, more importantly, how many hours you missed. At first I found myself going for walks on my lunch break. So far so healthy. I work just by Hampstead Heath so getting out into the air everyday was a beneficial addition to my day. What wasn't however, was when I found that I still hadn't hit my target by the time I got home. Somedays I would do my 30 minute walk and my 45 gym session and I still had not hit 10,000 steps. One evening my fiance was getting ready for bed and came out of the bathroom to find me running laps of the flat, jumping over the cat, in order to get my steps so I could go to bed. This was all very amusing at first but the reality was the numbers of the watch was starting to dictate my behaviour . It was not just a gentle encouragement to get moving, but a compulsion to hit those numbers and get that instant gratification that you had achieved something. The fact that I know I am active all of a sudden wasn't enough. I wanted to sync the watch at the end of the day and see the figure I was told I needed to hit.
Next I thought I would try the sleep monitor out. I suffer with periodic boughts of insomnia brought on by stress. During these times, I try my best to remain in bed and rest. I do not get up and watch tv or look at my phone or even try and look at the clock really, as I know it will just exacerbate my anxiety about the sleep that I am missing out on if I can see the time slipping by. I know this, but for some reason I thought It would be useful to see how well i was sleeping at night. I have no idea what I thought I was going to do with this sleep data, except feel terrible that I was awake 5 times between the hours of 2-4am. I knew I was awake, because I was AWAKE. Seeing this translated into a handy infographic did not help the situation. I would sync my watch in the morning and think 'well I was asleep an hour less than last night, therefore I must be more stressed,' which of course, made me more stressed. Also, have you tried to sleep with a watch on? No wonder I started to see the hours decreasing the night I started to wear the thing to bed.
Next I decided that it would be fun to connect with some friends for a little light competition to see who could take the most steps in a week or weekend. How bad could that be, right? One particular weekend I was training for the hike and went out for a 12 mile walk. That is a pretty decent amount of steps by anyone’s standards but I was up against someone who clearly had decided to walk the marathon that weekend and I lost the title of Weekend Warrior. In that moment it didn’t seem to matter than I had walked 12 miles, I simply hadn’t walked far enough.
Then I thought it would be interesting to see how many calories I was burning during my workouts. I generally do not care very much about how many calories I burn. I know that overall health and fitness is far more complicated than calories in vs calories burnt. I know this, but yet I decided that since I was working so damn hard, why not tag a number onto it to prove I was actually achieving something. Those of you who follow my Instagram know that I train in a functional way using a mixture of strength training and conditioning. Its brilliant but can be utterly brutal sometimes leaving me in a puddle on the gym floor. Like most people, I have seen some fitness bloggers taking snaps of their fitness trackers post work out where they were burning 500-600 calories, so in my head this was what I assumed I would also see. When I tracked my first PT session I had burnt a measly 180 calories. My trainer looked at it and went 'there is no way that is right.' I was convinced that I just hadn't been working hard enough. So the next day in class, I tried again, 230 calories. I felt so disheartened. Why was I not burning 600 calories? I wasn't asking why I had started caring about this arbitrary number that previously hadn't troubled me particularly. I can deadlift twice by body weight, I can back squat 1.5 times my bodyweight, I can burpee over bar like a jack rabbit, why on earth did it matter how many calories I was burning? Going home that night I did a little bit of research and discovered that certain fitness trackers heart rate technology has been proven to be highly inaccurate with many users reporting a similar issue to me: they were puking their guts up training and see very low numbers on their wrist. It wasn’t me that wasn’t performing well enough, it was the watch.
It was that moment of staring at some user forum, surrounded by a load of people who also were feeling terrible about their workouts and subsequently themselves, because they could not record them accurately, that I accepted that using the tracker was generating huge levels of anxiety for me. I was using these arbitrary numbers as validation and not hitting them was just plain demoralising. The measurement of how well I was doing was no longer how good I felt but a set of numbers on a screen. That wasn’t why i started training. I want to love movement; I want to be proud of my bodies ability to do incredible things; I want to feel free from the pressures and measurements of success set by others the world inflicts upon us.
I can completely appreciate why some people want to use fitness trackers. They can be a useful tool but, if you are an everyday sort of person who just wants to move a little more, will you try something for me? Just take the band off, just for a few days. Enjoy your walk, your run, your whatever for the way it makes you feel. Enjoy your heart pounding in your chest without thinking about its BPM. Enjoy sweat pouring down your face without worrying about how many calories you are burning. I promise you will feel just as exhilarated, if not more so because you are doing it for you, not some numbers on a screen.
So I am going to take my watch off. I might still use it to train for the hike, but beyond that I am quite happy to just lose track.