My mother has a Fitbit, so do two of my closest friends. My cousin swears by her activity tracker, which is complete with an inbuilt GPS that tracks where and how far she runs. I’ve so far resisted the allure of the constant tracking of my body because, to be honest, the whole thing sort of terrifies me.
There is evidence that wearable devices capable of tracking your movement, heart rate, calories burnt and kilometres run have been helpful for many people in their pursuit of health and fitness. Writer Gary Wolf is a firm advocate for this form of self-quantification and argues that if we want to act more effectively in the world, we have to get to know ourselves better.” (2010). He credits these devices as useful for “self-improvement, self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge” (2010) and, although only a new technology with few studies done (Rawassizadeh et al. 2015), some psychology seems to back these claims up – by being able to interact, change and share data about ourselves instantly, the wearable devices reinforce, motivate and reward the user, turning exercise and self-care into a ‘game’ (Beckham 2012). Cadmus-Bertham et al. (2014) found that women, in particular, seem to respond well to wearable fitness trackers, with an increase in activity and a reduction in BMI being recorded over a sixteen-week study.
There are, of course, potential risks and downsides to tracking such a large amount of data about us on a daily basis. Professor Jordan Etkin from Duke University discovered that people get obsessed with their fitness trackers and this can make them miserable:
“Enjoyable activities can became almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun… Rather than merely drawing attention away from an enjoyable activity, measurement also draws attention towards output, which undermines motivation and overall happiness.”
This concern aside, there are also doubts over whether wearable activity trackers are as accurate as they claim (Bloomberg 2016). Sasaki et al. (2015) found that wearables, in particular the Fitbit, have a long way to go when it comes to accuracy in counting human movement. Cadmus-Bertham et al. (2014) also acknowledge that, although the sensor technology within wearables is a remarkable innovation, the extent of data loss and uncertainty is still significant.
These are worrying downsides to these sorts of devices, but the most concerning to me is highlighted by academics Katina Michaels and Kieth W. Miller, who argue that we need to be constantly mindful of our privacy when using these devices because many of us don’t actually know who can access and track the data we are generating about our own bodies (2013). A recent US Federal Trade Commission study found that twelve of the biggest Fitness Apps were disseminating user data to 76 different third parties (Kaye 2014) and big brands, such as Nike, are open about their desire to use user data to design new products, guide brand and strategy and turn our personal mini fitness achievements into “intimate, highly personalised marketing” (McGowan 2013).
The appeal of self-quantification is pretty obvious, and the technology is remarkable, but the downsides to these wearable devices are enough for me to resist their potential benefits. Do you own an activity tracker? Why do you love (or hate) this new phenomenon?
Beckham, J 2016, ‘Fitness Trackers Use Psychology to Motivate Couch Potatoes’, Wired, 19 April 2012, accessed 11/03/16 at <http://www.wired.com/2012/04/fitness-tracker-psychology/>
Bloomberg, J 2016, ‘From Fitbit To Volkswagen: The Dangers Of Inaccurate Data’, Forbes: Tech, Jan 10, viewed 12/03/16 at <http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonbloomberg/2016/01/10/from-fitbit-to-volkswagen-the-dangers-of-inaccurate-data/#707349e51b65>
Cadmus-Bertram, L A, Marcus B H, Patterson, R E, Parker, B A, Morey, B L 2015, ‘Randomized Trial of a Fitbit-Based Physical Activity Intervention for Women’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 49, Issue 3, pg414-418. Accessed 11/03/16 at < http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/science/article/pii/S0749379715000446>
Etkin, J 2015, ‘Why Counting Your Steps Could Make You Unhappier’, Duke: The FUQUA School of Business, December 21 2015, accessed 12/03/16 at < http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news_events/news-releases/jordan-etkin-tracking/#.VwD-DT9NsgQ>
McGowan, M 2013, ‘Nike Sharing Its New FuelBand Data With Marketers: Fitness tracker toes the line between ‘awesome’ and ‘creepy’, Ad Week, June 21 2013, accessed 03/04/16 at <http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/nike-sharing-its-new-fuelband-data-marketers-150553>
Michael, K and Miller, K W 2013, ‘Big Data: New Opportunities and New Challenges [Guest editors’ introduction]’, IEEE Computer Society, Vol.46, Issue No.06, pp22-24, viewed 11/03/16< http://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2013/06/mco2013060022.html>
Kaye, K 2014, ‘FTC: Fitness Apps Can Help You Shred Calories — and Privacy’, Ad Age, May 07 2014, accessed 11/03/16 at <http://adage.com/article/privacy-and-regulation/ftc-signals-focus-health-fitness-data-privacy/293080/>
Rawassizadeh, R, Momeni E, Dobbins, C, Mirza-Babaei, P, and Rahnamoun, R 2015, ‘Lesson Learned from Collecting Quantified Self Information via
Mobile and Wearable Devices’, Journal Of Sensor and Actuator Networks, 4, 4, pp. 315-335, Computers & Applied Sciences Complete, accessed 11/03/16 at < http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=8d2bc783-c06e-4978-b197-efaa301a2928@sessionmgr120&hid=126&preview=false>
Sasaki, J E, Hickey, A, Mavilia, M, Tedesco, J, John, D, Kozey Keadle, S and Freedson, P S, 2015, ‘Validation of the Fitbit Wireless Activity Tracker for Prediction of Energy Expenditure’, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, issue 12, pp149-154, viewed 11/03/16 <http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=b72f66f8-4169-4cd6-9aab-94e4af45b885@sessionmgr4002&hid=4213&preview=false>
Wolf, G 2010, The Quantified Self, Ted@Cannes, June 2010, < http://www.ted.com/talks/gary_wolf_the_quantified_self/transcript?language=en>