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
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’