Fitness Trackers Are Leading Us Astray

Fitness Trackers Are Leading Us Astray
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Since March, the longest I’ve gone without running is six days. As temperatures rose this summer, my pace slowed from an average of about 10 minutes per 1.6 kilometre to 11-12 minutes. It’s not because I became a worse runner overnight. You can actually calculate by how much heat and humidity slow you down. You simply won’t run as fast on a day where the sun is blazing, humidity is above 60%, and the temperature is above 28 degrees Celsius. Nor should you, as heat exhaustion and dehydration aren’t a joke. But you try telling that that to my Apple Watch.

Like most fitness trackers, the Apple Watch is goal-oriented. It is famous for its tri-coloured Activity Rings, which you’re encouraged to close every day. If you meet a goal on a certain day, there’s usually some sort of celebratory animation and a congratulatory note. If you don’t, depending on your device, you might get negged with some pseudo-positive messages trying to guilt you into taking a brisk walk before midnight. There are badges or awards you can “win” for crushing friends in competitions, completing streaks, or breaking personal records. And while most fitness trackers and smartwatches are good for accountability, I really wish wearables makers would program a little more nuance into their devices. Health is not a perpetually upward pointing arrow, and staying healthy doesn’t mean doing more and more with no end in sight.

Take Apple’s Activity Trends. In 2019, Apple introduced feature alongside a revamped Health app and the Series 5. Activity Trends measures aspects of how your last 90 days of activity compares to the past year. If your 90-day average is on par with or exceeds your yearly average, your arrow points up. If you’re below that, it points down. You get judged on several different metrics, including your Move, Exercise, and Stand rings, but also walking pace, running pace, and cardio fitness (via your estimated VO2 Max score).

When this feature first launched, I thought it was excellent. (Probably because all my arrows were up.) I found it helpful that whenever my arrow pointed down, I was given targets to hit over a period of time to get them back up. But then summer arrived, and the arrows stopped presenting such a rosy picture.

All summer I averaged about four 5Ks per week — blisteringly slow 5Ks, and my running pace arrow was perpetually pointed down. It advised me to “pick up the pace!,” which haha, no. I easily faint in heat and I was not going to risk that for the sake of an arrow. Experienced runners know the value of slow runs, and at the end of the day, consistently running in a safe way is more important. I knew this. I told myself this every time I stared at that stupid fucking arrow. Didn’t stop me from feeling frustrated every time I saw it.

Now that temperatures are ideal for running, I’ve shaved off about 2-3 minutes from my average pace. My arrow is up, but I haven’t changed my regimen at all. If I’ve made any improvement as a runner, it’s been due to consistency, not whatever pace my legs were able to muster on a given day. But nowhere is that reflected in my Activity trends.

The same goes for my walking pace. Alone, I walk at about 15 or 16 minutes per mile. If I decide to go on a walk with my husband — a nice, active thing to do together — it will not register as exercise even if we’re walking at what’s considered a moderate pace (3-3.5mph). These walks, which I consider to be a healthy and good activity, bring down my average, which is just messed up.

Don’t even get me started on my VO2 Max score. Despite regular cardiovascular exercise all this summer, my score began to dip. Not a lot, mind you: It went from an average of about 34 to 33, in 0.1 increments. Again, the suggestion Apple gave me was to “challenge” myself on my walks and runs, and add hills. I already do hill work, and it’s not as if I don’t do interval and tempo runs every week, on top of one or two other mixed cardio workouts and several walks. I’m doing fine, thank you very much.

Apple isn’t the only one guilty of this — the Activity Trends feature is just one example, and it happens to be the one that’s sparked my ire these past few months. Most, if not all, fitness apps love to send cloying reminders about achieving goals and improving your stats, doling out awards for being stronger or faster or burning more calories — a dubious metric to begin with, and one perpetuated by fitness apps and wearables. This might be good for maintaining a baseline of activity, but there are some ways in which these features absolutely don’t reflect the quality of my health or fitness.

Instead of focusing on how much more you do over time, these devices should be rewarding you for getting enough activity in a consistent manner. They should incorporate flexibility and emphasise recovery, instead of promoting streaks dependent on hitting arbitrary steps, calorie burn, or stairs climbed. Instead of daily activity, the focus should be on weekly activity. And while I’m at it, the bias toward cardio or aerobic activities — which have a higher caloric burn — perhaps inadvertently discounts the importance of anaerobic activities like strength training.

I get it. Arrows are easy to understand at a glance. Closing rings or hitting a daily goal is simple. They don’t require users to read lengthy explanations about proprietary metrics. However, that simplicity also reduces health to a binary “good” or “bad.” That sort of rigidity sets people up for failure.

Thankfully, it seems more wearables companies are beginning to be aware of that. With watchOS 7, Apple finally made it possible for people to edit their daily Move, Exercise, and Stand goals. Earlier this year, Fitbit began a shift away from its iconic 10,000 steps goal and toward Active Zone Minutes, which is based on the universally accepted metric that people should get about 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Other wearables, like the Oura Ring and Whoop, have incorporated “readiness” scores that take into account various heart metrics to determine your physical strain. Some even recommend that you should take a rest day based on your training load. This is the tack that most fitness-first wearables companies, like Garmin and Polar, have taken via features like Garmin’s Body Battery and Polar’s Nightly Recovery.

Ultimately, we need to reward people for showing up week after week. We’ve got to move away from incentivising people to do more, and to do it stronger, faster, and harder every day. Otherwise, you’re just tempting people to one day throw their fitness tracker into a dusty drawer, never to see the light of day again.