We seem to have an ingrained cultural notion that technology solves everything. Got a problem? Throw some tech at it. Is that problem still there—or did it get worse? That’s okay. Some more tech should do the trick. This is what the wearable tech corporations like FitBit have been telling us. Wear a wristband that tracks the amount of steps you’ve taken, or the calories you’ve consumed, and that’ll make you fitter. Which launches us into a serious dilemma: we begin to think that we have control of our fitness like we have control of our thermostat.
Just change the little number and the temperature will change. The little number says how fit we are. But the body is a complex system, and as such, it is hostile to our attempts at simplification. If we try to “describe” fitness in such a simplistic way, we will find again and again that we are becoming overtrained and injured. As Albert Einstein said:
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
That is exactly the claim that wearable tech purports to let us make: that we “know” how fit we are because the little digital monitor says so. We can say “this is our fitness”—a claim about knowledge (or even worse “this is fitness”—a claim about truth). And our bodies, and our fitness, will be shipwrecked accordingly. The gods will be laughing at our disdain of the fact that the body is a dynamic system.
With the advent of social media, more and more pieces of technology are uploading our fitness metrics onto the web, for the perusal of our peers. Wearable tech has allowed us to link the metrics that correlate with fitness—but not fitness itself—to our social personas and our self-esteem. Thanks to that link, we become incentivized to go out for that workout despite our banged-up joints or our churning stomach telling us that something is wrong with our bodies. If we just can’t do the workout, wearable tech encourages us to cheat and post false statistics for the benefit of our peers. Again, this happens because it is the metrics, but not the fitness, that our social personas have latched on to.
The problem with wearable tech isn’t really the tech. It’s us.
Wearable tech gives some remarkable statistics. The kind of tech that feeds information back to the athlete in real time, like a heart rate monitor (HRM), is an excellent training tool to have. But like all tools, you should know how to wield it. Data can be misleading unless you know how to interpret it: that’s why sleight of hand works. We now have access to powerful computers that tell us interesting numbers about our athleticism. But miles, heart rate, calories expended, and calories ingested don’t really mean anything when we don’t know how to interpret them. In fact, the danger is often in thinking that we do.
Outside Magazine recently published an article about wearable tech in pro athletics. What struck me was that pro athletes don’t use very much wearable tech during their workouts; they actually use it in between workouts. Coaches want to know how much their athletes are exerting themselves beyond what is logged during training. This is quite telling: while the lay athlete uses wearable tech to see how much their workout should increase, the elite athlete uses it to learn how much their workout should decrease.
When we’ve been training, one of the most important indicators of whether we should continue to train is our resting heart rate—our heart rate when we just woke up and we’re still laying in bed. But the truth is that this statistic isn’t nearly as sexy as how many miles we logged this week. It’s a sad irony that the times at which wearable tech is most critical for our athletic development, is when we lay athletes take advantage of it the least.
Lastly and (perhaps most importantly), wearable tech tricks us into thinking that our bodies can’t give us the most important information—after all, that’s what the tech is for; that’s what it does. It stops being about, say, whether our left knee is rotating outwards slightly with each footstrike: hell, if my vertical oscilliation is just at the sweet spot, that’s what matters, right?
Neurolinguist Stanislas Dehaene suggests that the human unconscious mind is actually one big statistic calculator: it samples information from inside and outside our bodies at a fantastic rate. The subconscious then correlates all of this information, and feeds the conclusion to our conscious mind. For example, our conscious experience of seeing a cup is created when our visual cortex interprets the curves, lines, colors, and depth provided by visual information. However, this visual information is put in context: maybe we’re in a kitchen, talking to a friend. That makes it much more likely that the collection of visual information that we see—straight lines, shadows, colors, curves, and ellipses—actually mean that what we see is a cup, and not, for example, some perfectly-placed cardboard cutout of a cup.
Our minds can feed us statistics that are far, far more detailed and encompassing than any technology could ever supply. But, in order to do that, we gotta unplug from our iPods, and actually consider that all that sensorial nuance is exactly as relevant as what our heart rate monitor is telling us. We have to develop our awareness as if it were just one more muscle.
Wearable tech is useful. But it isn’t what we should rely on as a measure of our fitness. We should consider it to be one more tool in our toolbox. We need to develop our senses and our experience to put the statistics that wearable tech gives us in context, so that they can be an asset instead of a hindrance. And if we must link our self-esteem to exercise, let’s link it to our fitness—not to some number. Publish your long run along with the following day’s resting heart rate; now that’s impressive. But as long as we remain tricked by technology into thinking that we know what fitness is or fitness means, we’ll constantly become injured. And, like a child stumbling around in the dark, we won’t know why.