I have this friend; let's call her Priya. She is a high-powered executive, and her world revolves around analyzing data. Her love affair with numbers transcends her work and follows her home at night via her smartwatch, which records (to some degree of accuracy) her daily movements and food intake. She loves her data so much that when her smart watch dings an alert to move, she will dutifully get up and move around. When her smartwatch reminds her to be calm and breathe, she takes a deep breath. If she absentmindedly checks on her step count and sees that she is behind, she will pace up and down her driveway to rack up her daily 10,000 steps. It's only a matter of time before I walk into her house and find her walking on a treadmill desk. Recently, her love of data expanded into a wearable continuous glucose monitoring device, which pokes out of her dress shirts like the dressing of a battle wound. Now, to my utter dismay, lies an email from her waiting patiently in my inbox requesting my take on the benefits of a wearable fitness tracking ring.
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I wish I were joking, but alas, I am not. Not only am I confused by the desire to wear technology that looks like you escaped from the hospital, but I also don't see why one needs so many forms of data collection to determine if they are on the right track with their health and wellness goals. Optimizing your health is one thing; obsession is quite another.
Let me first say that fitness and nutrition trackers can be fantastic tools to kick ourselves into gear and achieve our goals. Fitness trackers can help determine if we are moving enough, and nutrition trackers can help monitor your calorie and macronutrient intake. We can monitor our sleep, which impacts our health, and now, according to an article in Fortune, there may even be wearable technology that registers our emotions. All these gadgets and wellness devices provide fascinating data that may impact our future decision-making.
However, I say "may" because I have found that people can take three actions when using a fitness or nutrition tracker. One, you can analyze the data and decide on a new course of action the following day. For example, let's say that by eating a bagel, your blood glucose levels catapult within an hour of eating it. Instead of choosing a bagel from the canteen tomorrow, you opt for some fruit and a small portion of nuts. You review the data and see that your blood glucose didn't elevate as much, so you pat yourself on the back for playing nutrition detective, and you continue with the change in your snacking patterns. Alternatively, you can view the data and do nothing with it. You might look at that same piece of data regarding your bagel intake and muse to yourself that the spike in insulin is an interesting phenomenon, and you go on your merry way, changing nothing. And finally, you can be someone whose heart races as they look at their data, feeling stressed or anxious that you have fallen short. You may even start beating yourself over the bagel but feel powerless to change your ways. Feeling powerless can be a terrible, limiting feeling for some people, and they will stop using the data to make informed decisions to better their lives.
I informally interviewed a large audience on their attitudes toward fitness trackers. I found there was an even spread between the three types of people, enough to take notice of the ones who felt paralyzed by the data. There is a great quote by French cultural theorist Paul Virilio that says, "the inventor of the ship is also the inventor of the shipwreck." Not all ships sink, but some do. And it's safe to say that not all people suffer from the stress and anxiety of tracking their habits, but some do.
Science is starting to back this finding up. An article published in Digital Trends titled The Hidden Psychological Drawback of Fitness Trackers tells us of a study conducted by the University of Copenhagen, showing that data could be interpreted as calming or alarming, depending on the experience of the users. What they found in the study was that the participants who slept and ate well felt calm when looking back at their data. If they hadn't done those things, they reported a heightened level of anxiety, although reviewing the data confirmed what they already knew. An article published by the website of the Sports Psychotherapy Academy, which provides psychological well-being courses in the UK, also notes that the downside of trackers may also come from people feeling as if their routines are dictated by their devices. Some users will even go as far as to skip a workout if they forget to wear their device.
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The excitement of wearable technology is understandable: it can be the key between the person you are now and the person you want to become. However, just like orthorexia, a clinical condition regarding the obsession with clean eating rules, causing anxiety and depression, pursuing perfection through data can also imprison us. The idea that everyone can use data to make dispassionate and objective decisions is fundamentally flawed; it disregards that everyone's attitudes on food, exercise, skills, abilities, and self-worth are different. Instead of data being a positive force in your life, you may start embodying unhelpful, negative self-talk (I'll never be good at this, I'll always fail, this isn't working for me), and that kind of thinking will sabotage your efforts to change. Sometimes the data needs to be paired with human-to-human coaching to help someone develop the mental and emotional tools to change.
The purpose of having this data is to become more motivated to move better and eat well, which can substantially improve our moods and elevates our quality of life. Second, there is nothing you can do about data that has been recorded. Mentally shackling yourself to past poor decisions doesn't allow you room to learn and grow. To be successful with our decision-making supported by data, we have to decide early on what we want to track and analyze and to what degree that data will be helpful for us. Will it help change our decisions, or is it just the fashion to wear a sports watch? The key is to own the relationship with your data and results, not let it own you.
If you notice that you're becoming affected by the data and want a data detox, here are some ways to see other data points in your life.
Frequency: Are you being consistent with your exercise? Try and get at least 150 minutes of purposeful activity a week.
Intensity: When you exercise, are you doing something vigorous enough to at least feel your heart beating harder and breathing a little heavier?
How do you feel once you've completed your exercise? Happy and satisfied or down and lethargic? Exercise should boost your mood, not leave you feeling low.
Food: Follow the 80/20 rule. Are you eating fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean cuts of meat, and small amounts of essential fats throughout the day/week? And are your treats (junk food, alcohol, highly processed, sugary foods) kept in moderation?
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach