Do you really need a fitness tracker?

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Jun 24, 2022

The world is changing and technology is invading/integrating all aspects of our lives. Some argue for the better, some for the worse.

For several years now I've resisted the urge to buy a fitness tracker. I've done my research, then hesitated, not wanting something distracting, buzzing, beeping and ringing on my wrist. While the plethora of integration options might be enticing for some, for me I've opted for less tech, more zen.

My position however is shifting as the wellbeing options and benefits are stacking up. With almost half of all men likely to be diagnosed with at least one chronic disease, these devices might hold the key to a healthier future.

Now when it comes to living a better life, there's every reason not to buy another piece of distracting, status-signalling arm furniture. After all, we've survived 200,000 years as a species without needing to know our blood oxygen saturation levels by the minute, graphed over time. Right?

Well. like most answers when it comes to wellbeing...it depends.

For many of us (me included) I look at some of these impressive looking devices and just want one because I think they're cool and interesting. I see them on the wrists of some of my active, outdoor type mates and think, yeah, I'd like one of those on my wrist too. I've never been able to justify the expense though.

While shaving your legs, sipping espresso's in lycra and knowing about carbon fibre is part of cycling, fitness tracking devices are becoming ubiquitous with wellbeing types. But they're not a natural fit for wellbeing practitioners today.

Technology has often cost us our wellbeing, not added to it. With the weight of digital distractions pushing heavily down on our lives, do we need more tech or less?

About 10 years ago I ditched wearing a watch. With clocks on every other device, did I need something strapped to my wrist reminding me of how precious time was? No I didn't and until recently, the idea of a fitness tracking device on my wrist has plagued me too.

Now the game has changed.

Recently we interviewed Harry Gasiamis from Garmin. This conversation led me to rethink my position on wrist architecture.

In the last 10 years we've seen significant progress of bio-sensor technologies, largely miniaturisation, power consumption and accuracy.

While they're game changers for wearable tech, the ability to interpret and display the data in a useful form, is where the real value is. Until recently, interpreting raw data was impossible for the average person.

Global tech giants now invest heavily in translating the raw data from the sensors. Complex algorithms produce simple numbers and graphs that can be meaningful to users. The ability to store that data and stitch it together over time gives trending information which can be very valuable.

Now, how meaningful that data is, depends heavily on what you're trying to measure and why. Without a purpose and some knowledge, those numbers are at best interesting and at worse, anxiety causing, distracting, confusing and demotivating.

For the average person, this data can be counterproductive and in reality, what you have is an impressive looking, confusing, status symbol that beeps, buzzes, flashes and needs constant charging. Which begs the question, why would you buy one?

Well, largely, us men have short attention spans. We want immediate reward for our effort. Do twenty pushups and next you're in front the mirror looking for results. We want feedback, fast. We're busy, time poor. We want to do things that bring results in real time, not in the distant future.

This short-term'ism carries a hefty consequence for wellbeing...

...current research suggests that 46% of us are going to develop at least one chronic disease in our lifetime. So therefore, half of us are going to end up chugging down pills, compromising our life, struggling to keep up, feeling terrible, worn out, run down, sore, tired, with a costly crappy ticket to an early grave. It ain't pretty.

To remain on the other side of the 46% we must get on top of, and stay on top of our wellbeing...

....enter the shiny flashing fitness tracking device.

This little puppy's main value (status aside) is to give us immediate feedback on our health and wellbeing efforts.

As a case in point, for the last two months we're been running a Wellteam Strava Challenge among our members. The challenge was 40 minutes a day of recorded exercise (ie. 20 hours per month). When we launched the challenge, what we saw instantly was an increase in recorded exercise levels with healthy competition among our members.

Our Saturday social exercise sessions became disclosure sessions about how members were conscious of their efforts versus others. It was 'game on'.

Research tells us that when we know someone is observing our behaviour, we tend to be more motivated to perform. It's a phenomenon known in research circles as the "Hawthorne Effect".

The simple act of recording and sharing your exercise levels to a group of people makes a difference. It makes you accountable. Just ask any of the 76+ million Strava users. 'Strava Brain' is a recognised phenomenon.

By measuring and tracking things, we tend to see an improvement in them. We get the immediate, positive feedback we seek, that's the reward.

From a neurological perspective:

  • we get the little dopamine (hormone associated with motivation) surge when we anticipate the rise in our daily exercise count (increasing motivation).
  • we get the dopamine and endorphin (another happiness hormone) hit from the exercise itself.
  • we get another dopamine surge from seeing the result on our daily tally or leaderboard (reinforcing why we should do it again).

So technology can now provide us with an added biological incentive and the short term feedback we need to help embed healthy habits.

In the past the immediate motivator and reward for activity was survival (food, shelter, protection, water).

And it's not just exercise levels that we should focus on. Use a device to focus on sleep stages, resting heart rate, daily stress levels and daily movement levels.

Track these and you'll likely become interested in what can trigger improved performance in those areas. At Wellteam we're focusing more and more on these levels as measures of overall wellbeing performance.

If there were a short term reward mechanism for increasing time in the deep sleep phase, we might ingest less caffeine, drink less alcohol, increase exercise levels, get to bed at an earlier time, more consistently.

In the longer term these behaviours would likely increase our longevity, reduce our risk of lifestyle diseases and lead to a longer, healthier and likely happier life.

What value would you place on that?

I would think that would more than offset the cost of a health/fitness tracking device.

By wearing a tracking device and experimenting with wellbeing life-hacks, (eg Wellteam's mind and body challenges) you'll be developing your own personalised playbook for human optimisation. Not only will you feel better, you'll be able to use data to confirm the result.

All that sound a bit too scientific?

Well, a less complicated justification is that wearing a fitness tracking device will remind you of the importance of being healthy and your commitment to it. When it comes to accountability...

...that bit of visible health-tech bling sends a signal to those around you that you're a healthy kind of guy. You better live that up. Smashing down half a dozen burgers with fries at Mc Chucks, while wearing your Garmin Fenix makes you look like a bit of a twat.

What device should you buy?

First maybe watch our interview with Harry Gasiamis from Garmin then check out some reviews from DC Rainmaker.

If you're keen to buy Garmin and you're a Wellteam member we have some special offers available. Send an email to team@wellteam.me for more details and a special code for online buying.




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