Trapped in the Fitbit Cycle

So you’ve been pretty sedentary lately. That’s okay; it happens to all of us at chaotic times like at the end of grad school or during the quadpocalypse. You noticed yesterday that your legs were sore after a moderately long walk, which makes you worry that you’ve lost a lot of fitness since you ran that half-marathon a few years ago.

Fear not: modern technology can help you. Buy a fitness tracker!

Soon, you’ll receive gentle reminders on your non-dominant wrist that will help you move a bit throughout the day, encourage you to get enough restful sleep, and increase the amount of beneficial exercise you get. Imagine how good you’ll feel then.

You’ll love how the colorful interface rewards you for meeting your goals. Some days, you’ll meet all of them—climb enough stairs, take enough steps, cover enough miles, get your heart rate up for enough minutes, burn enough calories, do some movement during enough hours, and get your target amount of sleep. That’s a lot of metrics. Just imagine meeting all of them by dinnertime. You’ll call these Perfect Days. At the end of them you’ll be glowing with pleasure and just a bit of pride. Hopefully the good kind. You’ll be very glad you decided to make this healthy step.

And you’ll commit to never cheating. You won’t be like those people you see who sit, roll their eyes, and shake their wrists when they get a reminder at the end of the hour to move around. No, you’ll take this seriously. After all, you’re not doing it for the rewards, as you are not a lab rat—you are doing it to actually improve your health. You just want insight and a bit of encouragement.

During the first week, you’ll feel pleased when you get five Perfect Days. You’ve taken up running again and you’ve gotten familiar with your building’s stairwell, which it turns out isn’t nearly as ominous as you thought it would be. Great job!

In week two, you’ll be well underway to a Perfect Day when your boss calls you at 3:45, which is not ideal because you’d planned to go for a walk at ten-till-4 that would have gotten you a lot of steps and also hills for stair-climbing credit. Goodness gracious, he’s really droning on. Soon it’s 3:57.

You’re still going to walk—that’s the thing. You’re ultimately going to get the right number of steps in the day; at this rate, they just won’t necessarily happen while the clock still says 3. But your body doesn’t know the difference, does it? You’re still going to get good movement scattered throughout the day. It’s not like you’re actually going to be sedentary for two full hours!

At 3:58, you decide to shake your wrist. Only, you emphasize, to have the data reflect reality, which is that you’re going to go on a walk in a few minutes whenever he stops talking. You crank your wrist back and forth until it buzzes to let you know you got your steps in.

You’re not necessarily proud of this, but it’s not cheating of the sort you’ve seen in other people, because you ultimately get those steps and then some. And it all makes sense when you get your weekly report and it shows that—yes—that was a Perfect Day.

You start reading up on the recommended articles about all types of health. Rest is extremely important. And, indeed, you’ve even taken to occasional naps to make up for nights when your watch tells you that you slept more poorly than usual. It turns out that taking real time away from the stresses of daily life can add years to your lifespan. You book a vacation—a weeklong stay in a rustic cabin.

It rains cats and dogs all week at the cabin. You love it, actually. It makes you feel incredibly cozy. You brought a big, juicy book you’ve been longing to read for months. You deactivated all the stressful, time-sucking apps. You sleep better than you have in months or years.

And, as it happens, you move less. You’re just so relaxed, and the couch with the big picture window with a view of the rain falling in the deep-green woods is so hypnotic, that you realize your body is craving stillness.

But every hour the thing on your wrist buzzes. Buzz. Buzz. Every day until Wednesday you fake it, shaking your wrist until you meet at least some of the goals, because after all, this whole thing was about tracking how healthy you are. For overall health, it’s very important to do the kind of good resting you’re doing this week. So, in a way, it’s not cheating to take credit.

Buzz. Buzz. Every hour.

On Thursday you realize what this reminds you of: it’s the rigidity of clock-time, the scourge of modernity. It’s a nag, a task. For several minutes you spiral picturing the report you’re going to get on Sunday: the email will have a bunch of angry-red, pointing-down arrows in it. You moved a lot less this week than your average. You went up almost no stairs. You didn’t do your workouts. As though you should be punished, criticized, for resting one week in a dang year!

This thing is really just a capitalist shill, isn’t it? It’s trying to hold you hostage to this patriarchal vision of us all as thin, “productive,” emotionless superbeings who spend a lot of money on wellness products, because at the end of the day, we’re all valuable to the extent that we’re consumers and/or products to be consumed. That’s no life at all.

This is actual tyranny. You’ve tyrannized yourself in the name of making yourself healthy. It would be much better to simplify, to take all the electronics out of the bedroom, to wake up with the light in the window and let your body live how it wants to, like your peasant ancestors who you imagine moved intuitively and ate a lot of barley and wild dandelions. Who measured their lives according to the seasons and the spiritual calendar.

You are liberated.

Six months later you get winded walking to the store so you buy a Fitbit.

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