Why do some people seem obsessed with fitness trackers?

Why do some people seem obsessed with fitness trackers? NPR spoke with Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist at Fielding Graduate University.



Leila Fadel, host:

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 1 in 3 Americans uses a wearable device to track their fitness. And as people shop for last-minute holiday gifts, fitness trackers are a popular choice for people of almost all ages. But do they really work? And why do some people seem to be so obsessed with tracking everything from their sleep to the number of steps they take in a day? Pamela Rutledge is a professor of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, and she is also an avid fitness tracker user. And she joins me now to talk about all this. Hello, Pamela.

Pamela Routledge: Hello. How are you?

Fadell: I’m doing well. So I guess I want to start with what’s going on in people’s minds when they use these trackers.

Routledge: So a fitness tracker is just another form of getting information about us that we find interesting and, you know, maybe we can use to make decisions.

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

Rutledge: Yes. I think most people who are devotees of fitness trackers are using them for self-awareness. They are using it to understand what they are doing and deciding how they can change their behavior or what their goals should be.

Fadell: Are there any drawbacks to these fitness trackers?

Rutledge: Tracking things to change behavior is a long-standing practice. We just had to use a pencil and paper. For the most part, people respond very positively in terms of it being a motivational tool. It’s really important, as it is for self-knowledge, to know yourself a little, because it’s much easier for some people to be preoccupied with a quantitative goal rather than a qualitative goal of wellness or fitness. So how many steps you take is not as important as how you feel.

Fadel: Do they make a difference when it comes to creating healthy habits in people’s lives?

Rutledge: Absolutely. Keeping track of things is a very important form of feedback because people tend to underestimate how much they ate and pay more attention to how active they are, and all those kinds of things – where we make decisions that Make us feel good, are kind of – I hate to sound like a psychologist, but in line with the ego, right? In other words, they reinforce our ego in a way. Reality, however, is important, and so keeping track allows you to say, oh my gosh, I thought I walked a mile, you know, but it was really only half a mile. However you’re thinking about it, it changes your level of awareness.

FADEL: Yeah, the accountability of it all. Now, you have a fitness tracker. How have things like this shaped you?

Rutledge: I’m a data freak, so let’s be fair here. And so I have an Apple Watch. I have an ora ring. I track my workouts on the Peloton bike.

FADEL: Yes.

Rutledge: But in general, I think it’s very helpful in getting me back to my goals because it’s so easy to – gosh, especially this time of year. But it helps you reconnect with yourself. Okay, so I’m keeping an eye on it. You know, I could fall off the wagon. But in general, I have the confidence to know that I’m on this path. So I think those can be very important, and you can motivate yourself with different measures within any type of tracker. I don’t know what you measure personally.

FADEL: Well, actually I only have my phone. I’m thinking, maybe I should get one of 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 this, and then it didn’t happen, and then it’s OK. I can eat a whole box of cookies.

(laughter)

FADEL: Pamela Rutledge is a psychologist who writes for Positively Media, a blog on Psychology Today. Thanks so much, Pamela, and happy holidays.

Routledge: My pleasure, my pleasure.

(Sound of Music)

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