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Tracking down the root of our self-tracking obsession

In the seven years since Fitbit launched its first shipment of ‘wearables,’ has collecting data on ourselves made us healthier, thinner and happier? The jury is still out, but we seem unable to resist technology’s promise to give us more knowledge and power – even if it leaves us trapped in an endless feedback loop

One in three people track their health and fitness using an app or device, according to a 2016 survey of 20,000 people in 16 countries, conducted by the international market research organization Gfk.

Everyone has heard of the methodical types who lose weight and get fit after tracking their heart rate, calories and daily steps for a year.

Then there are the rest of us. We may pace our kitchens at night, trying to reach our quota of 10,000 steps. Or feel guilty when we hear phantom beeps from the Garmin wristband we left in a drawer after falling behind on our jogging because of the flu. Or, if we’re dedicated Fitbit users, we may get separation anxiety when we forget our gadget at home, because a walk that goes unmeasured just doesn’t count.

Love it or hate it, self-tracking has become a fixture in modern life. One in three people track their health and fitness using an app or device, according to a 2016 survey of 20,000 people in 16 countries, conducted by the international market research organization GfK. Digital-health industry leaders such as Daniel Kraft, a Harvard-trained physician and medical-device inventor, predict that in the future, “track-a-holism” will be the norm.

Digital taskmasters have already infiltrated every aspect of life. Now we have the Muse “meditation trainer” (a brainwave-monitoring headband) and the Lumo Lift posture-correction device (which zaps you when you slouch). Then there’s the Feel emotion-tracking wristband, which monitors things such as skin temperature and blood-volume pulse to gauge whether you’re happy, angry or sad. The goal, the manufacturer says, is to “help you achieve your emotional well-being goals.” (No joke.) Self-tracking holds a certain navel-gazing appeal, combined with the tantalizing prospect of self-improvement. But in the seven years since Fitbit launched its first shipment of “wearables,” has collecting data on ourselves made us healthier, thinner, happier?

The jury is still out. One study, published last fall in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that overweight adults who used a fitness tracker for six months lost less weight than their equally active, overweight peers. (Some people may reward themselves with extra food when the fitness tracker shows they have exercised a lot, while others may get discouraged and stop watching what they eat when the tracker shows they have failed to meet their exercise goals, the researchers suggested.)

Others studies show improvements in health behaviours linked to self-tracking. In a 2015 report, marketing researchers Rikke Duus and Mike Cooray surveyed 200 women who wore Fitbits almost constantly. The majority said they had increased their weekly exercise and switched to healthier eating habits. But there was a dark side. Nearly 60 per cent of the women felt their daily routines were controlled by Fitbit, and 30 per cent described the device as a guilt-inducing “enemy.”

Even so, knowledge is power, right? The public scales for measuring one’s weight that once dotted the streets of European cities were built on the same premise. Some of these relics still stand in Paris, inscribed with a motto that translates as, “He who often weighs himself, knows himself well. He who knows himself well, lives well.”

One could argue that the invention of the modern weighing scale has only made us more miserable. Nevertheless, if the latest tracking trend is any indication, we cannot resist technology’s promise to give us more knowledge – and with it, more power – even if it leaves us trapped in an endless feedback loop.

What’s at the root of our self-tracking obsession? The Globe and Mail asked specialists in fields ranging from medicine to anthropology to weigh in.

The anthropologist

The urge to monitor the minutiae of our lives dates to the ancient Greeks, who believed in taking daily inventory of activities such as eating, exercise and social interactions, says Natasha Dow Schull, a cultural anthropologist at New York University and author of a forthcoming book called Keeping Track: Personal Informatics, Self-Regulation, and the Data-Driven Life.

What’s changed, she says, is that self-tracking devices can now intervene in our behaviour in the moment.

Once in the realm of geekdom, apps that break down our activities into “really granular digital bits” have saturated Western societies for a reason, she says. “This hyper attention to the self goes along with the retreat of the welfare state, and an increasing emphasis on personal autonomy and self-management through consumer choice-making.”

Through these apps, she argues, people are not only seeking to fulfill this ideal of personal responsibility, but also seeking relief from it. “These devices take the guesswork out of everyday life, they count the steps for you.”

Early versions of wearables such as Fitbit served as compasses, providing data for users to chart, annotate and evaluate over time. But when manufacturers realized that most people didn’t want to interact with their data to that degree, the interfaces became more like “thermostats” that “buzz, tap or zap users into changing their habits,” she says.

Why do we subject ourselves to such treatment? Dow Schull describes self-tracking technologies as “little shields” that help us navigate through the “big toxic mall of choices” that we face every day.

Whether we are trying to manage our weight, hydration or hours of sleep, at another level, she says, “it’s about managing our anxiety.”

The medical doctor

Just like yoga pants and wheat-grass smoothies, wearable gizmos that monitor our vital signs are forms of health “bling,” writes Des Spence, a family physician in Glasgow, Scotland, and a former columnist for the BMJ medical journal.

Now that health and fitness have become status symbols, he says in an interview, “there’s a lot of money to be made from making people feel sick – and, if not sick, then less than perfect.”

For most of us, devices and apps that measure things such as pulse, blood pressure and fetal heart rate in pregnancy are “kind of useless and largely harmless,” he says.

But these pseudo-diagnostic devices may trigger anxiety in people who put too much stock in the data – which may be unreliable, he adds. Fitbit, for example, is currently enmeshed in a class-action lawsuit over the accuracy of its heart-rate tracking.

More broadly, self-tracking devices reinforce the idea that “there’s a right way and a wrong way to live life,” he says. “It’s become increasingly binary.”

At best, he says, they are a distraction from the simple things that people can do to improve their well-being. Spence suggests swimming with a friend, sharing a home-cooked meal with family or walking the dog (without charting the distance or speed). Instead of wasting our time monitoring life, he says, “we should get on with living it.”

The psychologist

The rise of fitness and calorie-tracking devices reflects a fundamental distrust in our own bodies, according to Alexis Conason, a psychologist in New York who treats patients struggling with compulsive eating and poor body image.

The human body evolved with a “very effective appetite regulation and weight-maintenance system,” she says. But these devices encourage us to value data from technology over our internal cues about hunger, satiety and physical activity. “When we undermine our own system for regulating our appetite, it becomes less and less clear over time to even hear what our own body is telling us.”

You might be craving a fresh salad, for example, but if your calorie-counting app says you have 600 calories left for the day, you could end up gorging on rich food “just because you have that extra calorie allotment.”

Data-driven weight loss may come at a price. If someone sheds pounds by self-tracking but develops disordered eating along the way, she asks, “is that a success story?”

The futurist

In the age of information overload, self-tracking apps have emerged as tools for self-reflection, according to John Havens, a contributing writer for Mashable.com and author of Hacking H(app)iness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking it Can Change the World.

Even as our news feeds alert us to the F-bomb dropped in Parliament, or a friend’s taco lunch, many of us are using habit-monitoring systems and mood-tracking apps to cut through the chatter and pay closer attention to whether our daily activities serve our inner values, he says.

While these apps are often embedded in our phones, wearable devices act as physical reminders of our goals, says Havens, who wore a Fitbit three years ago to help himself lose 30 pounds.

For many, he adds, investing in self-tracking is a sign of self-esteem, a way of saying, “I am worth tracking.”

Havens acknowledges that some people get obsessed with self-tracking apps, but as he points out, we can obsess over anything. He recommends tracking an aspect of life for a predetermined period and then taking a break.

“It’s when you reflect on it that the data, and the possibility of change, can really sink in.”

The sociologist

The self-tracking trend stems from the digital-age assumption that everything – including emotions – can be rendered as data, and that “data about individuals are emblematic of their true selves,” Australian sociologist Deborah Lupton writes in a 2014 paper titled You are Your Data: Self-tracking Practices and Concepts of Data.

But in practice, self-tracking may have less to do with our “true selves” than the Oprah aspiration to be our “best self.” Despite the veneer of objectivity, numerical data are open to interpretation – by ourselves, our online workout buddies, and the commercial enterprises that collect our stats.

Quoting Australian sociologist Jenny Davis, Lupton notes that self-trackers don’t just collect data to learn about themselves, but also use data to “construct the stories that they tell themselves about themselves.”

Paradoxically, however, our quest for greater self-control through Fitbit or Apple Watch results in a lack of control over our personal data when we log onto the manufacturers’ online platforms. Unlike a paper-based food diary, cloud computing archives of information are open to software developers or hackers to use for their own purposes, Lupton writes in an e-mail.

Through digital technologies, “we can learn a lot about ourselves,” she says, “but so can other people.”

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