I Quant Do This Anymore

WNYC’s Note to Self recently asked its listeners to share stories about using mobile apps and fitness trackers to quantify their daily progress—with dieting, sleeping, fitness—for the episode, Your Quantified Body, Your Quantified Self.

I’ve maintained a pretty ambivalent attitude towards the new wave of trackers that have emerged over the last decade with the advent of the smartphone and the proliferation of wearables. In the mid-2000s, I used to employ a heart rate monitor to do interval training for bicycle rides. I have since soured on the practice. After sinking hundred of dollars on a couple of Polar devices, I learned that the best way to train is to simply put in the miles and find a few hills along the way. Of course, others swear by it so your “mileage” may vary.

However, I have unwittingly resumed tracking my activity after getting an Apple Watch. The stock Activity app not only counts my steps, but it awards me circles for meeting daily goals. If I keep active for thirty minutes throughout the day, I get a green circle. If I avert sitting for a full hour, twelve hours throughout the day, I get a blue circle. And if I burn 870 calories, I get a red circle. I regularly meet these goals, but unless I bike more than fifteen miles or take a very long walk, it’s easy to miss meeting the calorie-burned goal. Thus, no red circle for me.

In the episode, we hear about people becoming anxious in meeting their goals, including walking laps around their kitchen before bedtime in order to walk the requisite number of steps. This resonated with me because, once, I was twenty calories short of my daily goal. My solution? I walked to the corner pizza shop to burn those twenty-plus calories and to get that elusive red circle. But I also bought 300-calorie slice of pepperoni.

Obviously, it would have been better not meeting my calorie-burned goal. The Apple Watch and its activity tracking couldn’t save me from my own poor eating choices, and because it does not record my eating, it was none the wiser.

We also hear that for many who obsessively tracked their fitness, dieting, or sleep, they almost invariably were overcome with anxiety, fearing they would not meet their goals. Ultimately, this anxiety leads to their abandoning the trackers. One participant noted that instead of using the notifications to make exercising a regular habit, she noted that dismissing and ignoring the reminders became the habit. Overall, the participants all soured on the experience, much like I did with heart-rate monitoring a decade ago and with journaling and habit-tracking in recent years.


I should note that I have found this podcast series and New Tech City—its predecessor as a segment on WNYC radio—to be bothersome. The host is too technoutopian for my taste and seems very cozy with the technocratic entrepreneurs that she profiles. In this episode, instead of conceding that trackers offer only temporary benefits for most, she imagined possibilities for “what will they think of next?”

You might take a personality test before you choose a tracker, one that understands that you are a social butterfly, and you need social support. You need that competitive edge with your friends… Or you would respond better to a fitness tracker that lights up in soothing colors, indicating it’s lovely outside, the sun is about to set, and right now would be the perfect time to take a twenty-minute walk.

Did you get that? It’s not that constantly tracking our eating, sleeping, and exercise are unnatural processes that as humans we will invariably abandon. It’s that the tracking devices and apps simply don’t have enough data. Yet.

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  1. Great critique. I have to say that I enjoy the FitBit tracker, but I’ll sometimes go a week or two without wearing it and not really care, or I’ll be WAY below my goal and wonder if the computers think I’m sick or have hurt myself, which leads to an amusing train of nonsensical thought.