A few years ago, my family members all got FitBits for Christmas. I’d been coveting them from afar, so I was thrilled. The ability to have access to a constant, self-actualizing source of data about myself? It was like — well, Christmas.
The idea was that it was a nice way to keep in touch with family members as well as measure our fitness — we could compete, see how many steps everyone had taken, challenge each other. I was, then, of the opinion that it was an entirely positive move. We’re a very health-conscious family, so it could only be beneficial.
I kept it for nearly a year. I wore it religiously, constantly checking my steps, my heart rate, my time asleep. I measured my weight, and even my caloric intake.
I upped my step goal from 10,000 to 10,500, and again, until I was aiming to hit 12,000 steps a day. I’d carefully do at least 500 per hour to help me reach this goal, and I wouldn’t go to sleep until I’d done my steps. Because I worked in an office setting, and I didn’t want people to think I was weird, I often would go jog in the bathroom to get my steps, listening intently for someone coming in so I could stop in time.
At night, my boyfriend often watched from the bed, bemused, as I jogged in place in my PJs until I felt that euphoric BZZ bz bz bz that meant I’d hit my goal.
I felt so motivated — so on fire with health — for the first time in my life, it felt like, I had a completely transparent view of calories in, calories out, and the effect that had on my weight.
As a naturally curious data analyst, I even uploaded a bunch of my data into a program called R, where I plotted trends and probabilities. I grew reluctant to walk anywhere if it was uncharged or I’d left it off. I put it on first thing in the morning when it did have to charge, to ensure those steps to and from the shower were counted. I was constantly tapping my wrist, to see how many steps I was at, what my heart rate was, how many calories I’d burned so far.
Does a step really count if FitBit didn’t count it?
I wasn’t happy with it, looking back, but I certainly was passionate. The numbers grew to consume my life, in a way, every walk measured, every burst of exercise recorded for future optimization.
Then, one sunny salty afternoon in Sardinia, I took an unexpected dip in the ocean. My FitBit crackled once and then gave up the ghost. It had done a good service; I gave it up without any mourning. I couldn’t really afford another, I was a little sick of jogging in place, and after all, I thought, it’d been months. Surely I would keep up the healthy habits without Big FitBit looming over my proverbial shoulder?
As soon as the pressure was lifted, I stopped caring.
I put on an old Casio watch so I could still tell the time, but the very first day I didn’t have a tiny monitor buzzing at me to go for a walk, I stopped caring. I still walked to work, I still had the same dinner, but I did not make any extra trips to the tea kettle to make beverages; my bathroom trip times were halved, and I would sit at my desk for much longer than 50 minutes at a time.
At first I was worried. Without my constant healthy godmother, how would I stay in shape? How would I know when I’d hit my steps for the day? How could I ensure I’d burned more calories than I’d eaten that day? y sedentary lifestyle was overtaking me!
But then, as the days and weeks and FitBit-free months flew by, nothing really changed. I did not lose weight or gain weight. I briefly put on a bit of muscle mass from doing Kayla Itsine’s Beach Body 12-week workout, but lost it when I stopped. I continued going for unmeasured runs, and my eating habits didn’t drastically differ.
Nothing was really different. Except, of course, the fact that all of this activity was uncounted. I didn’t have instant access to my own daily caloric burn and I no longer could tell at a glance what my heart rate was.
And frankly, it was nice. I felt like people had been yelling in my ears for the past year, and I’d only noticed the abrupt silence when I walked away. The constant buzzing when I hadn’t stepped the allotted 250 steps in an hour, or when I hit the coveted daily goal, was not missed. I was able to relax.
Too much data is deafening.
As someone who’s highly driven, prone to competitiveness, visually motivated and obsessive-leaning, a FitBit was terrible for me. It gave me the illusion of empowerment, putting my data into my own hands, but all it did was suck my time, energy, and interest in real-time. With constant, up-to-date technology that let me monitor my own biopatterns compulsively, I felt like I was in tune with my body, when all I was in tune with was a stack of biometric stats that didn’t count for much.
And the numbers meant nothing. When my resting heart rate dropped to 49 beats per minute, then back up to 52 beats per minute, I absorbed the information voraciously but did nothing with it. How could I? What did it mean? Like so many other trivial bits of information to focus on, all the outcomes were made blindingly apparent to me, but without shedding any further light on their causes. I knew my steps, I knew my weight, I knew my caloric burn, and I knew my heart rate. But my health, how good I felt, how strong I was, how prone to illness I was — that was a concept that eluded me.
All I could really control was my steps. And boy, did I ever.
While I was incapable of simply moving, eating or even sleeping without being micromanaged by my own FitBit, I was also incapable of using the data to do anything meaningful. I charted, oh yes, I made plots and graphs, but the data was without any real-life application.
There were no data-driven results.
Like many notifications or performance metrics on social media, I was tricked into thinking these numbers mattered. They didn’t. Most of them would continue to occur no matter what I did.
We’re such visual creatures. We’re absolute suckers for a bright, shiny graph with numbers. We love to believe that if only we can be notified for every new like, comment or share, we can start going viral. If only we can see every message as soon as it arrives, we can optimize our productivity. If we can just track our steps, we’ll crack the code to being healthy.
But eventually I realized that just seeing these numbers and plotting them doesn’t help. So much information, without any actionable insights, is meaningless. I fell into unhealthy patterns, all in the pursuit of better stats as displayed by my FitBit.
All I had was a surfeit of data, and it made me quietly miserable without me even realizing. I was addicted to the numbers, constanly checking and refreshing and checking again. My behavior was considerably altered, when I stepped it up in the bathroom. I felt guilty when I let my FitBit down by not moving enough.
I’m not going back. (Yet.)
I was tempted, recently, to hop back on the FitBit bandwagon. All those steps I was missing out on! All those nights of unmeasured sleep!
But then I went for a walk. I don’t know how many steps I took, and I don’t know how many calories it burned. I do know I felt better after the walk than before it, and that it was nice to get some fresh air after being inside the office all day.
Maybe in the future, when the data is more connected to potential suggestions or results, I’ll put my FitBit back on. Until then? I’ll enjoy my life without measurements.