Health: Survival of the Fitbittest

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the July 2016 issue of The Rotarian

In the seven days from 7 through 13 March, I took precisely 84,250 steps. This amounted to 39.85 miles. I also climbed 288 floors and burned 22,055 calories.

I’m fairly certain that you, gentle readers, could not care less about those statistics. Unless, of course, you’re one of the millions of gentle readers who have joined America’s fitness self-surveillance movement by strapping a tracking device to your wrist. In which case, you are probably pretty darned impressed by my stats.

I should therefore add a few crucial caveats.

Caveat No. 1: That week was my first wearing a Fitbit.

Caveat No. 2: I have three small children, including a toddler who has been described by her physician, charitably, as “high energy.”

Caveat No. 3: I did, from time to time, allow the children to borrow my Fitbit. I also encouraged them to take quick jogs around the block.

So perhaps those figures were a bit inflated.

Nonetheless, I emerged from my first week with a kind of turbocharged confidence in my capacity to improve my fitness. I was pretty sure I was going to live forever.

The problem began with Week 2. I would rather not get specific about my stats, but let us say that they fell significantly below projections. Part of the reason for this was my wife, who forbade me from lending my Fitbit to our children. But I suppose if I’m honest about it, I deserve some of the blame. It turns out to be quite hard to rack up steps while lying on a couch.

For tech nerds and gym rats alike, wearable fitness trackers are old news. They’ve become a multibillion-dollar industry. An alarming number of my friends use them. My Facebook friends, anyway.

My friend Tom posted: “The dudes at my office have thrown down a department-wide challenge. Whoever puts up the most steps during the week gets free drinks at happy hour on Friday.”

I can understand the appeal of this uniquely American arrangement, in which heart-healthy behavior is rewarded with free alcohol. The problem is, I don’t work in an office. I work at home. I don’t have office dudes who throw down department-wide challenges. I have little kids who hurl half-eaten cereal bars at my door.

But I am also nearing 50 years old, and the men in my family have a long tradition of celebrating their 75th birthdays by having heart attacks. So I recently purchased a Fitbit that monitors heart rate and sleep quality.

After wearing the sucker for six weeks solid, my fitness level did improve. My stress level about my fitness level also skyrocketed. I now find myself doing all kinds of ridiculous things, such as jogging to the supermarket to pick up grapes and volunteering to take our neighbor’s incontinent dog for his morning constitutional.

Toward the end of a recent date night, I consulted my Fitbit and muttered the following regrettable sentence to my wife: “That was great, honey, but I really wish I’d been able to get my heart rate to at least 120.”

Not one of my finer moments as a romantic partner, but a perfect example of what fitness trackers do: They transform your life into an elaborate quantification game. The principle was best summarized in the 19th century by physicist Lord Kelvin: If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.

Behavioral psychologists (and personal trainers) would put the matter a bit more bluntly: People wildly overestimate their level of physical activity. I’m the kind of guy, for instance, who mentally catalogs a jaunt to our curbside recycling bin as a “light cardio workout.”

But numbers don’t lie. Over the past month and a half, I’ve averaged roughly 7,000 steps a day. I also checked my Fitbit roughly 7,000 times. In essence, the device became my data feedback loop. I was constantly feeling little jolts of virtue and guilt. (I mean this literally; when you hit 10,000 steps on a Fitbit, it vibrates.)

But one of the central appeals of the fitness tracker concept is that you don’t just monitor yourself. You allow your friends and workmates to do so, too. This is why my Fitbit was constantly urging me to “share” my stats on Twitter and Facebook. “We should totally link our Fitbits,” my friend Cathy told me. “That way we can compete in real time.”

I’m far too neurotic to enter into such a contest. But I’m also genuinely unsettled by the risks of sharing that much data.

After all, while my health stats are dullsville to most of my social network, they might prove fascinating to other parties. Such as my health insurance company. And my employer. And perhaps even the police.

Fitness trackers already have been introduced into evidence in a criminal court. One case involved a Florida woman who claimed to have been sleeping when an intruder assaulted her. The data on her Fitbit contradicted her story, and she was later charged with filing a false police report.

Or think about scenarios such as a corporate wellness program. The notion of a company giving its employees fitness trackers and urging them to compete to improve their health sounds perfectly benevolent. But it’s also, potentially, a great way to keep an eye on those employees.

Last fall Oral Roberts University required all incoming students to wear Fitbits as part of a physical fitness course. But Fitbits, as noted above, can be used to track the number of calories burned during erotic encounters. That could be a problem for students at a school such as Oral Roberts – an evangelical college that prohibits premarital sex.

Manufacturers are quick to assure their customers that they would never, ever sell data to third parties. But over the past few years, it has become clear that third parties can access the reams of personal data stored on fitness trackers, even if you never share this info online. Last year, a Canadian nonprofit tested eight wearable devices and found that only one – the Apple Watch – was impervious to hacking. All the others were vulnerable.


So where does that leave me when it comes to my new Fitbit?

“Ambivalent” is the best word, I guess. I’m delighted that I know more about my physical activity levels and that I have modified my habits. But the whole industry pokes at that familiar tension between the rewards of seeking public motivation and the simultaneous erosion of our privacy.

My solution has been to keep wearing my Fitbit but to resist sharing my data with anyone other than my wife, who really doesn’t care that much at this point. In other words, I’m trying not to lose any sleep as I compulsively amass steps and stairs.

Then again, if I do start to lose sleep, my Fitbit – which provides a detailed summary of how many hours and minutes I slumbered the night before, down to each toss and turn – will let me know.

So I can rest easy. I think.