Fitness Trackers: Step by Step to Better Health or Driving Us Crazy?


"I'm using a pedometer to track my steps and how far I'm walking in a day. The challenge is to complete 10,000 steps a day, and it's amazing, some days I track 15 or 20,000. I walk to the grocery store, I walk around the Superdome. It allows more activity, and I post it on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, which is a motivator," she said, pausing to take a drink.

"Suppose we could monitor every little thing going on in our brain every moment. It would be overwhelming."

Tiggeman's numbers resonated with me: the more I used the devices, the more I saw the numbers going up. The awareness of my step count made me more aware of my choices throughout the day, and I started to make better ones. On my best day, I biked and walked across Manhattan as I ran errands rather than hopping in a taxi. I logged more than 15,000 steps.

What Are Fuel Points and Why Do I Have So Few of Them?

But in addition to being more health-conscious during my week of quantified living, I also lived in a constant state of anxiety. Had I walked enough? Had I eaten too much at lunch? Did this chart or that statistic mean that I was doomed to die young?

The constant mental tallying of my numbers and activity levels distracted me from less quantifiable things in life, like work and personal interactions. The inactivity reminders from the Jawbone UP band meant that it took me at least twice as long to get through one work assignment. Once distracted by that device, I'd feel the need to check my stats on all the trackers.

"The problem in general of constant connection is that because you're at the beck and call of every message that comes in, you can never focus on one thing or relax because you're constantly multitasking and being interrupted, which makes your brain not able to function the way it functions most effectively," said Joanne Cantor, communications researcher in Madison, Wis., and author of "Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress."

The apps' social functions, in which your fitness and calorie levels are shared with other users, could also be stressful. I didn't fully understand what a Nike+ Fuel score was, but I knew that my score was less than my peers' scores, and worried about it.

"I think [fitness tracking] has the potential to have a net positive and the potential to make us crazy," Cantor told me. "What could me more fascinating than yourself? [But] I can also see people worrying about their health, looking at their EKG and thinking I must be having a heart attack or their blood sugar saying I'm going to down the tubes here. Suppose we could monitor every little thing going on in our brain every moment. It would be overwhelming. There are times when ignorance is bliss."

For some users, such stressors are merely additional incentive to track more and work out more.

"Knowing someone else will see what I'm doing, and being honest with myself and those people on the Internet [are benefits]," Tiggeman, the weight loss blogger, told me. "I can't be full of crap. I have to be honest about it. It's given me the opportunity to own my journey in a way I haven't experienced.

"I'm lucky I've built a community around me. It allows me to connect with people I wouldn't otherwise through hashtags. People are really encouraging and it's given me a new goal," she said.

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