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


Self-Improvement Through Data

In addition to fitness buffs and weight-loss bloggers and reporters doing experiments, there is a more serious, academic group using tracking devices to get a handle on how to live better. The most serious trackers I found during my week were those who participate in the Quantified Self movement, in which members try to track, quantify and improve every aspect of their lives through numbers.

"It's the idea of people or a community interested in creating and adapting data to effect a personal change or improvement or insight," said Patrick Whitaker, an organizer of the Quantified Self group based in New York.

It's like a science project about you and only you.

The members meet once every six weeks to discuss what they've been tracking lately and give presentations on what "experiments" they've performed on themselves and conclusions they've reached.

The group has tracked everything from spending enough time with their children to finding the exact right time, or "sweet spot," to go to bed each night.

"Pretty much everything can be tracked or quantified," said Konstantin Augemberg, another member of the Quantified Self New York group who is tracking 50 variables about his life for what he's calling the Quantified Summer project.

"I've even been recording how much time it takes to record," he said, laughing. "It's a science for yourself. It's about how we choose to use it. I may use technology to simplify my life. People do that. One guy saw how much information he consumed during the day and he wanted to reduce that."

Quantifying Myself

In the end, I'm in agreement with many of the experts I talked to about tracking. These devices are extremely useful at making us aware of habits we often don't think about and helping us change them.

The week-long experiment even led to some nice surprises. I found that the extra steps and bicycle rides became enjoyable in themselves, and not merely as a way of getting to my next destination. Knowing that a 15-minute walk to my apartment would make me a healthier person made it more worthwhile, and helped me slow down. The next TV episode or chore or social interaction could wait a few minutes.

"Often, the fundamental objective most of us have is improvement, whether at work or personally or otherwise," Quantified Self's Whitaker told me. "The tracking and awareness is basically a tool to empower or support people as they work to their pre-existing objectives."

It can be fun, too, to see your whole day (and night) quantified and shown back to you on a chart or graph, like a science project about you and only you. For a few days, I obsessively checked my sleep statistics, amazed at what I could find out about myself while I was asleep.

The Jawbone UP and Fitbit Flex were my favorites for this reason, as they seemed to offer the most comprehensive idea of my health through exercise, food and sleep charts and graphs on their iPhone apps.

Still, after a week living under the microscope of my trackers' judgmental eye, I grew tired of checking my statistics and devoting time and mental energy to thinking through every move I made. The experts echoed my concern. Even the Quantified Self guys told me they only track one variable for a short amount of time, maybe three months, and then move on.

Tiggeman, the weight-loss blogger, said she didn't want to devote any more time to logging than necessary.

"I don't have the patience or time for that," she said. "I like to track my steps because it's basic and easy, but my sleep patterns and those things I've tried for a week or two here or there. I don't have any dedication to that.

"The fact of the matter is if I'm exercising, I want to be able to post something and move on," she added. "I don't want it to consume my day."

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