When Obsession Meets Fitness Trackers

Hello there,

How have you been recently?

As someone who lives within the vicinity of Toronto (loosely speaking), and as someone who has somewhat been a wreck emotionally as a result of S.A.D. and a few other stressors (factually speaking), I have been thankful for the re-appearance of the sun during the past few days.

The fact that it reached 12º C (or 53.6º F, for those of you reading in the U.S.) two days ago was almost too much for me to handle.

I am also on Reading Week/Spring Break, which arguably means I shouldn’t be counting on my classmates to read this, because, well… quite a number of them are away on vacation in the tropics. I also learned that lesson during the Ontario College Strike of 2017. #TooSoon

But if you are reading this…

Now, with two GIFs out of the way, I want to talk about fitness trackers, a fitting topic given what I wrote about in the previous post, and inspired by a conversation I had recently. I won’t be reviewing any of them per se, because plenty of YouTubers and tech./gadget websites already do that, and do so very well. I will, however, approach it from the perspective of someone who used to be obsessed with – and borderline addicted to – the tracking aspect.

Metrics, Metrics, Metrics

Heart rate, steps taken, laps swam, distance traveled, floors/stairs climbed, duration & quality of sleep, calories, water intake, O²-level, etc. Regardless of what health-related metric you want to track, there is most likely a fitness tracker (or smartwatch) out there that meets your criteria. Now, their accuracy isn’t uniform or consistent, as it is dependent on the type of fitness tracker (what sensors it has), how/where it’s worn, and the manufacturer (related to the software algorithm behind the calculation of metrics). Heck, even when all three conditions are met, there can still be variances between devices.

In other words: you shouldn’t rely on fitness trackers to provide the kind of data that medical-grade devices can.

However, for more casual purposes, like someone who is interested in finding out more about their fitness status and/or wants to start living a healthier life, fitness trackers can offer a lot of insights, or at least a lot of details. I separate the two because being aware is different from actually understanding. I learned this limitation of fitness trackers fairly quickly.

My Experience

As someone who has struggled with major depression and still struggles with seasonal depression, and as someone who has always been fairly physically active, the appeal of fitness trackers was intuitive.

  • As a deep sleeper, I wanted to know why I would wake up feeling more fatigued on some days than others.
  • I wanted to have some kind of evidence that my level of physical activity was related to how I was feeling emotionally.
  • I wanted to know just how active I was.

My first foray into the world of fitness trackers was in 2014, when I purchased the Fitbit Charge with the main purpose of tracking and understanding my sleep. Wearing it nightly, it helped to capture data on how long I slept and how much I slept. Seeing the information through the accompanying app helped to visualize my sleep:


Source: fonearena.com

But this was also the point when the limitation became clear, for example: it was nice knowing how restless I was while asleep, but what could be done about said restlessness? As someone who is a non-smoker, doesn’t drink caffeinated beverages, only occasionally consumes alcohol, and keeps a rather consistent sleep schedule and routine, the knowledge of my sleep being restless was something beyond the capability of the tracker.

When Fitness Tracking Becomes Social

Based on my observation, it’s no surprise that the most successful brands in fitness tracking also tend to be successful in actively (no pun intended) creating and fostering a platform in which their users form communities and thus earn badges and compete against one another. A large number of consumers who purchase those devices do so not only for health and fitness reasons, but for social purposes as well, and manufacturers understand this.


Interface of the Fitbit Dashboard for Desktop (Source: Fitbit)


Interface of the Samsung S Health mobile app (Source: Samsung)
Interface of the Garmin Connect mobile app (Source: Garmin)

I’m excluding the Apple Watch here because despite its popularity, it’s more of a smartwatch with some fitness tracking functions, rather than a device that was designed with fitness tracking as a priority. I mean, we are now on Apple Watch 3, and yet it still doesn’t track your sleep. The Apple Watch, as of this moment, is also the only wearable device that Apple manufactures and sells, and is only compatible with iPhones. And… regardless of what the North American telecoms/media want to sell you, the reality is, the majority of the world’s smartphone users do not own iPhones.

Given the social aspect of fitness tracking – from the respective built-in communities to the ability to share your progress across various social media platforms – the line between healthy behavior and unhealthy behavior can start to blur.

When Fitness Tracking Becomes Counter-Productive

Growing up as an only child playing team sports have had major impact on who and how I am today. Look, I’m not gonna lie: I may be laid back, but I’m competitive; I’m competitive because I can be petty AF.

Fitness tracking can become counter-productive if the social aspect is taken too seriously. This operates similarly as far as social media metrics are concerned. I used to be obsessive about fitness tracking and trying to measure up, e.g., a friend managed to log 16,000 steps? I would be damned if I didn’t match and exceed that; a friend climbed 20 flights of stairs earlier this week? You could find me going up and down a hill until I matched and exceeded that (a small hill, but a hill nonetheless); a friend walked 30km? Well, now that’s just BS.

The last example was in jest, but the point remains: fitness tracking can become toxic because the metrics are so easily shared and, in some cases, flaunted. We can become discouraged when our progress aren’t met with glowing approval or show of support, or when our results always appear to lag behind other people’s. I would say we can even become discouraged when realizing we performed a physical activity but failed to track it. I came across the following tweet and the responses during my research, which I think capture the idea so well, even as a joke originally:

Fitbit joke

Final Word

By focusing so much on the metrics themselves, a lot of things tend to get overlooked when it comes to fitness tracking: personal lifestyle, personal health history, personal athletic abilities, etc. My adage concerning fitness tracking is the same as how I view social media: you are always seeing other people’s highlight reel, so just focus on your own. It’s a tool, nothing more, nothing less, and you shouldn’t sacrifice your sanity while in an attempt to make the tool look shiny.

Until next time, don’t forget to unplug, we’ll Randezvous again!


R. L.

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