Against Fitness Apps And Health Gadgets

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Adam Bosworth at The Huffington Post rails against the proliferation of “health gadgets” and fitness apps. Here, here! Has anyone ever really gained anything from extensive data on how many crunches they’ve done or the vagaries of their sleep cycle?

This is where someone will inevitably pop up in the comments telling me how they could never stick with their exercise routine or lose 20 pounds until they started using X. Okay, okay. I’m sure there’s a minority of people for whom this kind of stuff really helps.

But as Bosworth notes, diet and fitness apps may give greater visibility to daily activities, but “the data does not address what really impacts overall health: Changing behavior and creating meaningful, sustainable habits.”

They provide information, but not insight. Which is fine — these are tracking tools, not therapists. But I feel like that’s often overlooked in the hype about these apps and gadgets.

“Imagine there were devices that told you exactly many steps you walked each day — would we see a massive increase in the distance that people walk?” Bosworth blogs.

“Oh wait, they’re called pedometers. Pedometers have been around for decades and many U.S. companies have been pushing their use recently. Yet, most Americans walk far less than other countries and than they used to. The fact is, these gadgets work best for people who have both already decided to take the time to improve their health and who are motivated by data.”

The first part of his conclusion — that fitness apps work best for those who’ve already decided to improve their health — can be said about just about any healthy habit, and doesn’t seem to support being anti-gadget. But I think he’s right that certain sorts of people are motivated by data and others aren’t. If you’re not, all that data on how many steps you’ve taken or chews per minute is just going to wind up stressing you out.

I would add a third conclusion from the pedometer paradox: It’s hard to entice individuals into behavior that society doesn’t support. Oh, sure, Americans are ostensibly super psyched about walking. We love to talk about it, tell each other to do it more, give tips for ‘walking smarter’ and how to stay motivated and which shoes to wear. But the majority of people in the U.S. live and work in neighborhoods where walking is unappealing, if not difficult and dangerous. The infrastructure of American life just isn’t set up for walking; all the pedometers in the world won’t change that.

And all the calorie counting, daily yoga pose, movement monitoring and meal-logging apps won’t change the fact that Americans know nothing about nutrition and multinational food companies deliberately try to keep it that way; or that eating poorly is positioned as edgy and defiant in our culture; or that environmental factors thwart us at every turn. You can lead a horse to a vibrating fork, but you can’t make him know what the f**k for.

Here is one app, however, that I fully support (though Mr. Checker should totally win in his lawsuit).

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