The Dangers of a Counting Culture

It’s easy to spot FitBit users on campus, judging by either their brisk pace or wrists donning a shiny metal band. While the prevalence of fitness trackers may appear to some as an innocuous symbol of BC’s “fit” culture, for me, each sighting is a small reminder of what has been recently coined as the “self-quantifying epidemic.”

Unfortunately, I am no stranger to calorie-counting applications such as MyFitnessPal, step trackers, scales, and many other forms of self-measurement. My measuring habits originally sprang from the misconception that weight loss equates to health—an idea perhaps fueled in part by America’s $61 billion weight loss industry. But let me be clear: Losing weight is not the same as being healthy.

This misunderstanding, that obsessive control of everything related to our bodies is healthy, can lead to extreme forms of self-quantification. Although technology such as FitBits and calorie-counting apps can be powerful motivators to become active and eat healthily, it can also promote tracking steps, calories, and pounds in an unhealthy manner. When taken to an extreme, it sets unattainable standards in contrast to daily lifestyles.

The danger lies in the fact that we first see these numbers as goals, and then as baselines. Weight, caloric intake, hours of sleep, and step count become standards of judgment, and emotional unrest and physical damage ensue when we inevitably fail to measure up. Of the 223 million FitBit users, how many have become dependent upon the (false) security provided by numbers?

“Friendly competition” between people using calorie and exercise trackers can actually lead to exercise dependence, female athlete triad (energy imbalance, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis), or even the offset of the body’s balance of nutrients. A 2015 study conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald surveying primarily female FitBit users found that 79 percent of women reported feeling pressure to meet their daily targets, and 60 percent felt that their daily habits and lives were controlled by their FitBit. Even 43 percent believed they had wasted their exercise efforts if they forgot to strap on their FitBit during their workout, and reported feeling “naked” without them.

It is important to note that the various forms of self-quantification upon which people rely aren’t even accurate. MyFitnessPal, for example, is a popular calorie-counting app that syncs Fitbit’s caloric measurement of activity, and allows the user to compare calories consumed with calories burned. In its tracking of calories, however, the app assumes that a calorie of high-fructose corn syrup is the same as that of protein, which isn’t true. Calorie-counting applications fail to consider the crucial metabolic effect of different calories on the body and digestive system, and their varying effects on satiety and hunger.

Furthermore FitBits and exercise machines fail to account for exercise efficiency and training history. Even if an athlete believes the displayed calorie count is accurate because she diligently updated her age and weight, people who regularly workout (and do the same routine) become more exercise efficient. With practice, their bodies adjust to expend fewer and fewer calories.

All too often, I hear echoes on campus of the same phrases of punishment I directed toward myself in the past, and still actively combat. Even those who believe they practice healthy habits feel overly guilty after eating “bad foods” or having a “bad food day,” and “punish” themselves accordingly. They remark to their friends, “I ate so much pizza today … No carbs tomorrow.” Or maybe they’ll try to “work it off” at the Plex, denying themselves the slightest bit of elasticity in their lifestyles.

So I wonder, why do products, which claim responsibility for sculpting healthy habits and healthy bodies, actually promote this obsessive measuring and the need to self-quantify? While these powerful tools can motivate us, they can also put a damper on our emotions.

Feeling crestfallen or even anxious when each of our steps are not meticulously recorded, or our calories aren’t faithfully measured, is by no means a healthy way of enjoying life. When we start to fixate and obsess about “perfecting” ourselves, we develop habits of self-deprecation that cause us to become exasperated, or feel like failures when we cannot meet unattainable standards. We should be more critical of the influence that devices like Fitbits and calorie-counting apps can have on our lives. Then, perhaps we may shift our focus from quantities in life to quality of life.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor