I had to wear a pedometer for a day once in elementary school. We were told to write down every food we ate, every athletic activity we did, and every step we took for an entire 24 hours. It was an exercise meant to get us excited about personal fitness. I remembered thinking “this is dumb- when will I ever need this information?” But here I am, ten years later, wearing a fitbit.
For those who may not be up to date, the fitbit is a virtual pedometer that you wear on your wrist so you can track how many steps you take per day. Little glowing dots fill up a “meter,” and flash excitedly when you’ve reached your daily goal. The fitbit is one of the many modern apps meeting the modern obsession with healthy living. As our nation emphasizes healthier eating habits and more exercise, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of fitness. The recent popularity of fitness apps- calorie counters, workout planners, and especially pedometers- all arise from a desire to monitor one’s health in a way that is incredibly convenient. But how helpful are fitbits in aiding you to reach your weight loss goal, or to lead a healthier life?
Some medical professionals hail the power of these weight loss apps. One doctor in the UK happily explained his new method of treating patients: “you name the condition, we get the apps to match up with your phone” (Paddock). But others point out that this new level of personal monitoring might lead to misinterpretation of the data without the guidance of medical professionals. Consider WebMD– by plugging in the symptoms for the common cold or the flu, you will probably be diagnosed with a terminal illness. It’s a hypochondriac’s dream.
We can collect immense amounts of data about ourselves with the help of new gadgets, like the fitbit. But this burst of big data can be harmful if it is not analyzed correctly, argue Boyd and Crawford. Without the oversight of an expert, who can correctly draw conclusions, individuals can misinterpret the information they are given and not harness the full power of the app or product they are using. Knowing information about how many steps you’re taking, how long you’re sleeping, how much exercise you’re doing and how many calories you’re burning should help weight loss, right? Some experts say no. The “unintended consequences of personal quantification,” Petrow explains, “decrease our enjoyment in an activity which then leads us to do less of it.” A study performed at Duke by Professor Etkin showed “measurement also draws attention towards output, which undermines motivation and overall happiness.” So the more we know about our daily steps, the less excited we get to do more than the bare minimum. That digital knowledge (and how we process it) is filling up the air with both “sustenance and pollution” (Boyd & Crawford). And keep in mind, fitbit’s data may not always be that accurate, as this study explains.
In our modern age information is abundant and oftentimes overwhelming. In the quest to find the perfect balance to live a healthy life, big data can appear helpful. But in reality, it can cloud our judgement of what is enjoyable and what is work by quantifying all we do. Our lives are flooded with screens, our brains inundated with mundane knowledge. So when it comes to your health, give yourself a break- don’t worry about how many steps you’re taking. Instead, just allow yourself to breathe and take in the world around you. You’ll probably feel a lot better.
Boyd, Danah, and Kim Crawford. “Six Provocations for Big Data.” (2011). Web.
Paddock, Catharine, PhD. “How Self-monitoring Is Transforming Health.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Petrow, Steven. “Why That Fitbit Might Not Be so Good for You.” USA Today. Gannett, 18 Jan. 2016. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.