Why do some people seem obsessed with fitness trackers?

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



LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans use a wearable device to track their fitness, according to the National Institutes of Health. And as people shop for last-minute holiday gifts, fitness trackers are a popular choice for nearly all ages. But do they really work? And why do some people seem obsessed with tracking everything from their 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 health fitness tracker user. And he’s joining me now to talk about it all. Hi Pamela.

PAMELA RUTLEDGE: Hello. How are you?

FADEL: It’s good. So I think I want to start with what’s going on in people’s brains when they use these trackers.

RUTLEDGE: So a fitness tracker is just a way of getting information about ourselves that we find interesting and that we can, you know, can use to make decisions.

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

RUTLEDGE: Yes. I think most fitness tracker devotees use it for self-awareness. They use it to understand what they are doing and make judgments about how they can change their behavior or what their goals are.

FADEL: Are there any drawbacks to these fitness trackers?

RUTLEDGE: Tracking objects for behavior change is a long-standing practice. Before we just had to use pencil and paper. For the most part, people respond very positively in terms of them as a motivational tool. It’s really important, like they are for self-knowledge, to get to know yourself a little bit, because it’s very easy for some people to get preoccupied with the quantitative goal rather than the qualitative goal of wellness or fitness. So how many steps are not as important as you feel.

FADEL: Are they making a difference when it comes to creating healthier habits in people’s lives?

RUTLEDGE: Absolutely. Tracking things is a very important form of feedback because people tend to underestimate how much they’ve eaten and overestimate how active they’ve been, and all those kinds of things that – where we’re doing of judgments that make us happy, that’s kind of – I hate to sound like a psychologist, but ego consonant, right? In other words, they boost our ego. Reality, however, is important, and so tracking allows you to say, oh, gosh, 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: Yes, it’s everyone’s responsibility. Now, you have a fitness tracker. How did those things shape up for you?

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

FADEL: Yes.

RUTLEDGE: But overall, I find it’s really helpful to get me back on track because it’s so easy – gosh, especially this time of year. But it helps you sort yourself out again. OK, so I’m following it. I could, you know, 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 valuable, and you can motivate yourself through different steps within any kind of tracker. I don’t know what you measure personally.

FADEL: Well, I only have my phone actually. I was thinking, like, maybe I should have 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, then it didn’t happen, then it’s fine. I will eat the whole box of cookies.

(LAUGHTER)

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

RUTLEDGE: My pleasure, my pleasure.

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