As Fitness Tech Advances, Slowly We Drown in the Data

I sprinted the final 20 meters to the end of the block, completing the 10k circuit with a sense of internal accomplishment. Hurriedly I paused the smartwatch on my wrist to save and log the afternoon’s run, doing so just as my leading forefoot crossed the proverbial finish line.

With arms raised above my head to expand the diaphragm and increase oxygen flow to wearied muscle, slowly my running partner Dan crossed the very same line only moments later, plagued by labored breaths.

“Shit,” he muttered after glancing to his watch. I already knew the words that would leave his mouth next, but I wanted him to finish the thought. “Those splits were fucking godawful,” he grumbled. This was a common theme for Dan these days — unacceptable results.

“You’re focusing too much on the numbers,” I replied. “You just need to get back into running for the sake of running, dude.” Quietly he paced down the block, inaudibly griping between exasperated breaths.

As I headed home and pulled out my phone, a notification entered the screen. “Your activity has been logged,” it read. “See how your results compare to your friends.” I tapped on the alert to open the fitness app — one of three on my phone. While glancing over hard-earned data that included splits, steps, miles run, and even sleep, suddenly I grew overwhelmed as the unrelenting stream of statistics and figures ceased to end. In time I simply put down the phone while taking a sharp breath, pondering the internal motives that led to this robotic desire to be an omniscient athlete.

Soon I wondered if this was simply the road that we’re destined to travel down — the one in which fitness data engorges our minds as the technology we use to track activity grows ever-more sophisticated. No longer was it uncommon to go for a run with friends and hear the phrase “target heart rate” — a percentage (usually between 50 percent and 85 percent) of your maximum heart rate that’s used to identify optimal exertion. And too often a cry is heard at the weekly group run when a member forgets their chest strap to merely monitor vitals.

Clearly something in this world of fitness has changed. And slowly it has us drowning in the data.

But personal opinions and grudges aside, evidence has increasingly leaned in favor of the notion that fitness tech — from simple phone applications to complex wearables — doesn’t really work.

Research from a 2018 Australian study that analyzed the effectiveness of health and fitness apps — of which there are over 320,000 across major app stores — “found that only a very small percentage of all available medical and health and fitness apps have been tested and shown to be somewhat effective.”

Similarly, a 2014 study conducted by Penn State found that a large percentage of fitness apps are ineffective, as they incorporate only a few behavior-changing techniques. “Our results suggest that there are far fewer behavior-change techniques described in apps than in interventions, which are delivered in-person to help people increase their physical activity,” noted David Conroy, a professor of kinesiology at Penn State and leader of the study.

And what about wearable tech, like smartwatches or other self-proclaimed fitness trackers? Unfortunately those don’t seem to do much either. An exploration into the effectiveness of wearable technology by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found evidence that simply suggests that “devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches.” Perhaps even more surprisingly, researchers concluded that “the addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioral intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months” among young adults with a BMI between 25 and 40.

And if you need the real facts and figures, simply look to this: “At the end of the two years, which is pretty long for a weight loss study, those without access to the wearable technology lost an average of 13 pounds. Those with the wearable tech lost an average of 7.7 pounds,” wrote New York Times writer Aaron Carroll.

Perhaps the score isn’t ultimately settled though. After all, thousands if not millions around the world have found positive results — be it weight loss or physical gain or any other personal fitness goal — as a result of fitness applications and wearable technology. But if research continues to suggest that an overwhelming number of users won’t have such luck, why do we continue to use these resources anyway? And why do we fixate so intensely on the data?

It’s because we’re still using technology. And technology is still addicting.

The truth is that wearable fitness trackers have turned into wildly capable machines. Not only do they count our steps and meticulously track our calories burned, just as simple pedometers did so long ago, but they also feature advanced capabilities such as sleep-tracking and 24/7 heart rate monitoring. Their batteries have grown larger, their UI has integrated seamlessly with our phones, and most products now sport water-resistant housings.

Suffice to say, there’s almost no reason to actually take them off. Just as YouTube strives to ensure its users will cycle through recommended videos for hours on end, so too have wearable manufacturers simply begun borrowing theories from psychology and behavioral economics to motivate users more than ever before.

And it works like a charm.

Technology today is unavoidable — the fitness variety included. It prompts us to move when sedentary, sends push notifications to our phones, and has established itself as an imperative aspect of physical life by providing an endless stream of mind-boggling data. Surely it’s no wonder we’ve fallen for it all as quickly as we have.

But as with most things in this world, that which is worth enjoying is also best consumed in moderation. Relying solely on the numbers, or instead growing frustrated by them, serves a purpose that rapidly detracts from the origins of fitness itself.

As I met Dan the following week for what was destined to be another laborious run, happily he noted a difference in his strategy for success.

“I left the watch at home today,” he said. “I think I’m just going to run this one out.”

And run he did.

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