For three years, I have literally been joined at the hip with my wearable. Seriously, it clips right to my waistband. I’m a non-conforming conformist, one might say, refusing to vault myself into the increasingly populous realm of bracelet-sporting device-wearers. No, I’m old school. I prefer the belt clip, thus my Fitbit One and I haven’t been separated since 2012, when I began testing such products for work at a software startup specializing in health and wellness.
From the very beginning, I had a feeling the One and I would get along. It fit so snugly into place. On basketball shorts, sweats, even against my jeans pocket. Where I went, the One went: to the gym, the bar, work, parties, weddings, and everywhere in between.
Those initial days of product testing were more or less a solo venture. Fitbit’s technology had not yet gone fully mainstream, with products a few months away from appearing on the shelves of big box stores across the vast landscape of the western world. The ecosystem of device-wearers around me was relegated to coworkers, fellow testers who were in the game more for technological intrigue than self-discovery.
By 2013, the device craze expanded beyond the core of early adopters. People outside the tech world began donning wearables — right around the same time that all-too insufferable term “wearable” caught on. Friends and family members jumped on board and a genuine social element emerged.
Fitbit ushered in a new platform that capitalized on the budding interactions of device-wearers. Leaderboards pitted friends against friends, ranking one’s network of confidants by weekly step count. It was no longer just okay to wear a device. Now, one needed to strive to be atop a leaderboard.
Steps, above all else, were paramount to health, well-being, and the approval of one’s peers. Steps, one might infer, were the metric by which to gauge one’s level of overall fitness. Steps, it turned out, became the unit from which we could no longer separate ourselves.
And steps, as it so happens today, have become our greatest enemy.
Harkening back upon the days of yore — in the medieval 2000s, prior to our obsession with devices — health and fitness were most often associated with nutritious eating habits and active exercise. The standard line issued to the masses was “30 minutes a day,” which meant one whole sitcom’s worth of running, jogging, power-walking, weight training, body-bending, sport-playing, or otherwise sweat-inducing, shorts-wearing high-intensity activity. This was the norm, universally accepted by American society as the gateway to getting in shape.
Fast forward to 2015 and, despite the abundance of biometric measuring sticks now adorning our corporal beings, the idea of what fitness is or is not has devolved into something less than a half-hour of huffing and puffing. For all the moving we now do, the quality of our movement has decreased. Intense activity, previously our barometer for getting in shape, has been shoved aside in favor of steps — steps of all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life (pun intended, why not). Sure, there are those who still shirk the casual stroll around the neighborhood for labor and perspiration. But at the same time, there are so many more who need not be any more fit than the new standard: 10,000 steps a day.
Those who swear by their devices, myself included, can attest to how glued to that all-important step number we’ve become. How many times have you paced around the living room to reach your daily step goal? How often have you wandered aimlessly around the office to out-step a friend? How irritated have you found yourself upon realizing your pedometer was accidentally left behind on the nightstand? We can barely separate ourselves from our wearables anymore, which in turn means we cannot detach from the stigma of steps, a figure we’ve romanticized to an unhealthy degree.
What differentiates one step from another? The incremental units that comprise a sprint, a jog, or a near-comatose stumble matter not to, say, the Fitbit leaderboard. Hitting one’s daily 10,000-step goal can be achieved through any means necessary, hence the reward for working harder to get there is non-existent. And make no mistake about it, we’re a society that thrives on incentives and rewards. Fitbit knows that better than most, which is why they dole out exclusive badges with each step-related milestone a user achieves. But there is no incentive for out-stepping one’s peers at a higher intensity, for aspiring to the top of the step rankings at a brisk pace when a casual jaunt will suffice. Aspiration, it seems, requires no perspiration.
Those who disagree would argue that today’s pedometers can measure such things as calories burned, which would be more indicative of the intensity of one’s steps throughout the day. But ask anyone what the recommended number of calories burned in a day is and they’ll furrow their brow and get a glazed look in their eye. We haven’t sanctified calories burned the way we’ve sanctified steps. And because we haven’t done that, we can’t appropriate our emotions to those units in the same fashion.
Steps are an emotional trigger. When we hit our step goals, we feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction. It’s the same sense of achievement and satisfaction we once associated with our 30-minute gym trips in an era gone by. With those positive emotions come rewards, and rewards for healthy behaviors are often represented in the form of their polar opposite: unhealthy habits. Thus, when we hit our daily step goal or zoom past our peers to the upper reaches of an ordinal list, we reward ourselves. Maybe we have a beer or two, maybe we spend the rest of the evening on the couch, maybe we snack, maybe we simply take a day off from the effort we put into making our goals a reality. However we reward ourselves, we do it knowing we’ve earned our prize.
But have we really earned it? Are 10,000 casual walking-around steps really worthy of a temporary respite from what we perceive to be a grind? We’re rewarding ourselves for a representation of physical fitness that we don’t fully understand. And it’s becoming a problem.
There is a sense of frustration in hitting these step-related performance standards and not making progress toward weight loss or maintenance. The all-encompassing presentation of steps without regard for the intensity of the movement has tricked us into thinking we’re working harder than we really are. The sense of accomplishment that now comes along with an act as simple as walking to the bathroom has made for a more mobile society, without a doubt, but also one that equates something far short of actual exercise with fitness and well-being.
Fitbit, for starters, can alter this misperception if they choose. The technology behind the pedometers strapped to our wrists and clipped to our waistbands is able to qualify steps as it quantifies them. One feature of the Fitbit dashboard displays a graph stratifying steps into one of four unique groups: “very active,” “fairly active,” “lightly active,” and “sedentary.” Were Fitbit able to more visibly represent this qualified data in its leaderboards, an increasingly robust story would begin to form around how we grasp fitness in terms of mobility.
Instead of competing for steps, we could begin to compete for active steps. Instead of merely sauntering through each day, we could increase our pace, burn calories, and work toward fitness milestones rather than thresholds not necessarily built around intense activity. This is where wearables need to improve their analytics to begin changing the landscape around those utilizing their products.
I still love my Fitbit One. I still wear it every day. I still grab it before I run out the door each morning. But I’m no longer enthralled by the concept of “steps.” Until the data evolves, it’s up to users to look beyond the numbers displayed on a leaderboard. Steps, in and of themselves, aren’t the answer.
Fitness hasn’t changed. But our perception of it has. It’s time we refine our perception.