Well Being

How Fitbit and Exercise Trackers Can Kill a New Workout

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why is this taking so long (Via Shutterstock)

It's the third week of January, which may mean that you're reassessing your New Year's fitness resolutions. Maybe going to the gym daily has failed you, and you want to find a new way of staying in shape that doesn't involve gawking at your sweaty reflection in the mirror and feeling like a hamster in a wheel as you pedal and pedal and pedal on the Exercycle. Maybe all you think you really need is a sidewalk and a Fitbit.

I certainly can't blame you for giving up on the gym. I would rather get a workout any other way, including swimming laps in rat-infested raw sewage. It's too confining for me; I can't focus on anything else when I'm gazing at the clock on the treadmill or counting repetitions while lifting weights. If I were stuck with the gym and its never-changing walls, too-slow clocks, and exercise-as-repetitive-task, I'd never work out.

Which is precisely why I could never buy a Fitbit or any device like it. Not only is the popular step-tracking device apparently not as reliable as claimed, it would distract me from the pleasures I get from walking by making my thoughts consistently turn to how many steps I've taken. I would convince myself that I'd gotten my requisite 10,000 steps in, only to look down and discover that I'd only managed 89.

I know how this process would go because I've done goal-oriented exercise before. I have climbed twelve of Colorado's 14,000+ foot mountains and hiked hundreds of other trails besides. Given how capricious my home state's weather is, it always behooves me to find out as much as I can about a hike beforehand so that I can plan to make the summit or other halfway point by noon. An afternoon storm in my neck of the woods can be a literal killer.

But knowing the mileage beforehand is sometimes just as deadly to my motivation to move. About halfway up a ten-mile roundtrip hike, I'll start whining, sometimes out loud, “Are we there yet?” Somehow, the simple knowledge of the fact that I am only two and a half miles into the uphill trek gives me no reassurance. All I know is that I haven't made five miles yet, and until I reach that five-mile mark after which it actually is all downhill, I will be hard-pressed to think of anything else. It doesn't matter that the air is fresh and the scenery is gorgeous, all of which motivated me to go on the hike in the first place, all I can concentrate on is the fact I'm not “there” yet.

With something as nitpicky and trackable as my footsteps, I can only imagine how obsessively I'd be counting. At least with a marker as general as miles, I can sometimes forget the burning in my lungs and the throbbing in my feet and allow myself to be swept away, if only briefly, by the endless beauty of the Rockies and the vast blueness of the sky.

If I had a method for keeping minute focus on some aspect of my progress, I'd lose all hopes of reaffirming my true purpose for staying fit enough to scale mountains. The temptation to glance down and see how far I'd come and, from there, calculate how far I had to go (the answer is always “too far”) would pester me the whole way. I'd get no relief, and for me, my favorite forms of exercise, strenuous though they might be, are my stress relief system.

I imagine I'm not the only one who's similarly obsessive for no good reason. Still, I understand that I do not speak for all who commit to a certain health routine. There are plenty of people who need to know how much they accomplish during a walk or run. They may be training for a race or marathon, and seeing their steps grow quicker and their times grow shorter is a continuous victory for them. For them, the Fitbit with stopwatch are great tools that will add to, rather than detract (and distract) from, their purposes.

But the vast majority of us have less ambitious motives. We're exercising simply to stay healthy, to counterbalance a love of fried foods, perhaps. For the rest of us, finding a way to get ourselves moving that happens to be fun is a perfectly acceptable goal. If it's enjoyable enough, we'll be happy to spend the requisite doctor-recommended-amount-of-minutes-a-week doing it. But if a given routine makes us miserable enough that we need to track ourselves to make sure we've done enough, getting geared up to do it again is going to be a rough go.

If you have yet to find your exercise happy place, forget the Fitbit. Getting 10,000 steps in today, plus or minus a few depending on your device's calibration, isn't going to do you any good if you're too discouraged during the activity to do it again tomorrow.