It’s all in the wrist

Wear­able fitness track­ers risk turn­ing ex­er­cise into a daily dose of stress and anx­i­ety as peo­ple ob­sess about their stats

Sunday Times - - Insight | Obsessions - By CLAIRE KEETON

When did track­ing ev­ery step to fitness be­come a cult? To spot its fol­low­ers, just look at their wrists and see if you see a fitness de­vice. That’s a clue. The sec­ond clue is an un­wit­ting “us and them” at­ti­tude to­wards peo­ple who don’t share this ob­ses­sion.

Another sign is less-than-so­cial be­hav­iour dur­ing a so­cial ac­tiv­ity. There are peo­ple who feel that they can’t stop dur­ing a group run or ride be­cause fitness data, and look­ing like (pre-doping) Lance Arm­strong on so­cial me­dia, mat­ter more than wait­ing for friends, or smelling the fyn­bos.

“Strava is off­line. Slow down!” a sign on a bike trail near Kirsten­bosch Na­tional Botan­i­cal Gar­den in­structs riders more fo­cused on stats than their en­vi­ron­ment. Strava is a fitness app that records data such as speed, dis­tance and routes and is pop­u­lar among en­durance ath­letes.

Stu­art Kenny lists 22 “warn­ing signs” in a satir­i­cal ar­ti­cle on Strava ad­dic­tion, in­clud­ing: “You don’t stop when you see some­one you know. You yell ‘Strava’ and catch them at the bottom.”

Be­ing ac­tive — a pur­suit re­in­forced by fitness apps and de­vices, and re­warded by well­ness pro­grammes — is good for our health, which ben­e­fits in­di­vid­u­als and so­ci­ety. That’s sci­en­tif­i­cally proven, be­yond doubt. And in­cen­tives get re­sults.

But when peo­ple are chas­ing fitness targets they did not set, with a zeal that over­rides what their bod­ies (or souls) need, the bal­ance be­tween en­joy­ing ex­er­cise and achiev­ing goals can get lost.

Elite triath­lete An­drew Lewis from the Univer­sity of the West­ern Cape’s depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­ogy says: “There is a del­i­cate bal­ance that we need to achieve be­tween in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion and ex­ter­nal mo­ti­va­tion and re­wards.”

That doesn’t mean every­one with a fitness de­vice is fix­ated on train­ing when re­cov­ery and sleep are needed more, but many are vir­tu­ally welded to gad­gets that track their move­ments 24/7 for bet­ter or oc­ca­sion­ally worse.

High-per­for­mance ath­lete Sandy Maytham-Bai­ley reached the top bracket of a well­ness pro­gramme in which her train­ing funds her Ap­ple watch, lock­ing her into the sys­tem. But not wear­ing the watch on the 650km Ride to Cradock last year meant she got zero points de­spite fin­ish­ing the tough moun­tain-bike race.

Mind your num­ber

She says: “I did not take the watch be­cause the bat­tery would not have lasted, and they would not ac­cept my re­sults af­ter­wards be­cause my well­ness num­ber was not recorded on the re­sults sheet. The week af­ter the race I was pe­nalised for rest­ing!”

Another ad­ven­ture she could not log was the 150km X-Berg Chal­lenge across the top of the Drak­ens­berg.

But apps like Strava work in most places, en­abling ath­letes to get mo­ti­vated — or ad­dicted.

Kenny notes of ath­letes in its thrall that “the first thing you do when you fin­ish a run is whip out your phone” and “your big­gest ri­val in life is a guy on your phone screen you’ve never met. He makes you an­gry.”

Why get hung up on the sta­tis­tics? Pro­fes­sional ath­letes who are paid to train and race (and tweet) must mea­sure ev­ery sec­ond of their per­for­mance, yet for most of us it doesn’t make much dif­fer­ence if we shave a few sec­onds off a per­sonal best or not.

De­spite fitness snob­bery, the app ad­dict holds no moral high ground over a per­son who would rather at­tend a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val, an art ex­hi­bi­tion or a wine tast­ing than go on a moun­tain-bike ride.

Reg­u­lar peo­ple with jobs, kids, pets and part­ners need to slot ac­tiv­ity into daily life in a way that doesn’t crank up the stress.

Cape Town per­sonal trainer Wes­ley Muir says: “I have com­pet­i­tive clients who are chas­ing numbers to reach goals and will not take a break. They are mostly A-type clients and I have to put the brakes on.”

Mind­ful­ness — de­fined as be­ing aware of one’s thoughts, emo­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences in the mo­ment — re­duces stress, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, and peo­ple fo­cused pri­mar­ily on their track­ing are un­likely to be 100% present.

A num­ber of stud­ies have shown that sim­ply go­ing for reg­u­lar walks pro­motes car­dio­vas­cu­lar health and longevity.

There is in­creas­ing ev­i­dence that strong so­cial net­works pro­tect peo­ple from health prob­lems even more than not smok­ing. That said, ex­er­cise can be a good way to meet peo­ple.

Cape Town phys­io­ther­a­pist Ch­eryl Mool­man, who spe­cialises in mind­ful­ness and treat­ing pain, says: “One study shows that peo­ple with back pain who ex­er­cised in a so­cial class got bet­ter re­sults than peo­ple who did the same ex­er­cises at home on their own.

“Many of my pa­tients can’t do the ex­er­cises that would earn them well­ness points, but they at­tend Pi­lates or yoga classes.”

Lewis says: “Well­ness pro­grammes are on to a good thing, but they could try to be more flex­i­ble, with more of a per­sonal touch. I’m con­cerned they are push­ing some peo­ple into in­juries.”


Dis­cov­ery’s Vi­tal­ity Well­ness pro­gramme has

1.8 mil­lion mem­bers out of 2.7 mil­lion peo­ple on Dis­cov­ery Health. Vi­tal­ity mem­bers get in­cen­tives and pol­icy sav­ings as re­wards for reg­u­lar train­ing and fitness as well as for hav­ing var­i­ous check-ups.

Craig Nos­sel, head of Vi­tal­ity Well­ness, says: “The com­po­nents of fitness which Vi­tal­ity pro­motes in­clude car­dio­vas­cu­lar, strength, bal­ance and flex­i­bil­ity ex­er­cises.”

Ex­plain­ing the ra­tio­nale for push­ing up weekly fitness goals to a cer­tain thresh­old, Nos­sel says: “A high heart rate im­proves your car­diores­pi­ra­tory fitness, which is im­por­tant to lower your risk of early mor­tal­ity and chronic dis­ease de­vel­op­ment.”

But re­ly­ing solely on heart rates to mea­sure the ef­fort go­ing into train­ing is un­re­li­able be­cause this varies widely be­tween in­di­vid­u­als. While it is the most practical way, another lim­i­ta­tion of mea­sur­ing train­ing by heart rate is that this method does not re­flect strength and flex­i­bil­ity ex­er­cises, which are in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as one ages.

Mool­man says: “I can be teach­ing a Pi­lates class and my watch is in­struct­ing me to ‘Move!’ ”

Mo­men­tum Mul­ti­ply head Tesh­lin Akaloo says: “There are a lot of pro­grammes which get you to do stuff you may not want to do for gim­micky re­wards.”

Akaloo says a “de­cent” pro­por­tion of Mo­men­tum’s 1.1 mil­lion clients had joined Mul­ti­ply and it is in­creas­ingly com­mon for peo­ple to buy into the healthy lifestyle pro­gramme. Their mem­bers get pol­icy dis­counts for healthy and safe lifestyle choices.

South Africa’s in­no­va­tive well­ness pro­grammes un­doubt­edly make a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to pro­mot­ing fitness and health,

Nos­sel says: “The Vi­tal­ity ac­tive re­wards pro­gramme has been in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful in in­creas­ing the amount of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity among mem­bers. Re­search has shown an in­crease of close to 30%.

“Peo­ple with chronic con­di­tions have be­come sig­nif­i­cantly more ac­tive through the pro­gramme and we have seen an im­prove­ment in their health.”

But there is no-one-size-fits-all ap­proach to ex­er­cise as the fitness ter­rain is shift­ing.

In­stead of al­low­ing de­vices to run their lives, peo­ple need to be­come more aware of us­ing gad­gets as a tool to en­hance their qual­ity of life, in a way that suits their own par­tic­u­lar lifestyle.

If we al­low body-mea­sur­ing ma­chin­ery to dic­tate all our move­ments, where will it end? Po­ten­tially with cou­ples mak­ing sure they strap on their watches be­fore sex so that they can record their heart rates and earn more points.

‘I have com­pet­i­tive clients who are chas­ing numbers to reach goals and will not take a break. They are mostly A-type clients and I have to put the brakes on’

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