Why do some people seem obsessed with fitness trackers?

Why do some people seem obsessed with fitness trackers? NPR talks with psychologist Pamela Rutledge from Fielding Graduate University.



LEILA FADEL, host:

Nearly one in three Americans use a wearable device to track their fitness, according to the National Institutes of Health. When people are shopping for last-minute Christmas gifts, fitness trackers are a popular choice for almost all ages. But do they really work? And why do some people seem so obsessed with keeping track of everything from sleep to how many steps they get in a day? Pamela Rutledge is a professor of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and is also a user of the health tracker. And he’s joining me now to talk about all of this. Hi, Pamela.

PAMELA RUTLEDGE: Hi. How are you?

FADEL: I’m fine. So I guess I want to start with what’s going on in people’s brains when they use these tracking devices.

RUTLEDGE: So a fitness tracker is just another way to get information about ourselves that we find fascinating and that we can perhaps use in decision making.

FADEL: So it’s about gathering more information about yourself.

RUTLEDGE: Yes. I think most fitness trackers use it for self-awareness. They use it to understand what they are doing and to evaluate how they could change their behavior or what their goals should be.

FADEL: Are there any disadvantages to these fitness meters?

RUTLEDGE: Tracking things to change behavior is a long-standing practice. We just used pen and paper. For the most part, people respond very positively because they are a motivational tool. It’s really important, just like these are for self-knowledge, to know a little about yourself because it’s very easy for some people to focus on a quantitative goal instead of a qualitative goal of wellness or fitness. So how many steps is not as important as how you feel.

FADEL: Do they have an impact on creating healthier habits in people’s lives?

RUTLEDGE: Absolutely. Tracking things is a very important form of feedback because people tend to underestimate what they’ve eaten and overestimate how active they’ve been, and all those things that – when we make assessments that make us feel good are kind of – I hate to sound like a psychologist, but ego consonant, is not that right? In other words, they kind of reinforce our ego. Reality is important, though, and that’s why tracking allows you to say, oh my God, I thought I walked, you know, a mile, but it was really only half a mile. However you think about it, it changes your level of consciousness.

FADEL: Yeah, responsibility for everything. Now you have a fitness tracker. How has this shaped things for you?

RUTLEDGE: I’m a data freak, so let’s be fair. And so I have an Apple Watch. I have an Oura ring. I track my training with a Peloton bike.

FADEL: Yeah.

RUTLEDGE: But in general, I find it very helpful to get me back on track because it’s very easy to – oh my gosh, especially this time of year. But it kind of helps you touch yourself. Okay, so I’ll follow this. I can fall off the wagon. But overall, I have the confidence to know that I’m on this path. So I think they can be very important and you can motivate yourself with different measures within any tracker. I don’t know what you measure personally.

FADEL: Well, I really only have a phone. I’m thinking maybe I should get these Apple Watches. And then I have a tracker for my food, but on my phone where I write it down.

RUTLEDGE: Right.

FADEL: But then, you know, some days I’m like, you know, I’m not going to write it down, and then it didn’t happen, and then it’s fine. I can eat a whole box of cookies.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: Pamela Rutledge is a psychologist who writes for Psychology Today’s Positively Media blog. Thank you so much, Pamela, and happy holidays.

RUTLEDGE: My pleasure, my pleasure.

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