Technology & Science·Blog

Do fitness trackers really change our behaviour?

Everything we do is recorded and measured by our devices. That data then becomes a resource for self-improvement.

Everything we do can be recorded by our devices — experts call it 'The Quantified Self'

Devices like Fitbit track your physical activity throughout the day — and let you compare and compete with your friends. (BTNHD Production/Flickr)

Every January, people around the world make a vow of self-improvement: this is the year I'll get off the couch and get active! But often, by springtime — if not earlier — those resolutions have been long forgotten. 

Now, in the digital age, there are new tools to help us stay on track by collecting data on our behaviour.

Experts and designers have dubbed this trend "The Quantified Self." 

Fitbit is one of the best-known activity trackers on the market. The wearable wristband tracks your physical activity throughout the day and lets you compare and compete with your friends.

According to game designer Elan Lee, that's a big part of Fitbit's appeal.
There are many fitness trackers on the market. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

"At first it was cool, because I would compete with my friends and we would set up daily challenges and monthly challenges," said Lee.

But if a device is centred around competition, what happens when your friends start to fail at their fitness goals? 

"After a while, people stopped using them. One or two friends fell off. Eventually my list of competitors became something of a ghost town where I was the only one left [...] so one day I took mine off and never put it back on."

The rise of 'The Quantified Self'

The Quantified Self is a concept that's gained traction over the last few years as fitness tracking devices have become more ubiquitous. 

And in 2016, the way that data is being collected and analyzed is getting more and more advanced.

This week at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, Vancouver-based Mio is hoping to revolutionize the wearable market, launching what they call the Personal Activity Intelligence score. 

The MisFit Ray tracks your activity and sleep, vibrating to let you know when you've been sitting too long and checking your movements throughout the night. (Misfit)
Most trackers simply measure activity based on isolated metrics such as footsteps or heart rate. The PAI score, however, factors in age, gender, resting heart rate and maximum heart rate — resulting in more accurate feedback.

The MisFit Ray tracks your activity and your sleep, vibrating to let you know when you've been sitting too long, and checks your movements throughout the night. The wearable can even change your music or your lighting. 

So now what? 

"I like the idea of tracking my own data. I just don't know what to do with it," said Lee. "I like that there's a data store somewhere with all that stuff, but honestly, I've not yet figured out what to do with it."

The newest generation of wearables is trying to solve that problem by using all of our data to tell a story, which could prove to be a powerful move for self-monitoring. Human beings are uniquely motivated by a good story — especially one where we're the hero. And that's just the kind of story these new data-driven devices are weaving.

The appeal of the data-driven lifestyle is that it promises us answers where there weren't any before and offers the comfort of a suggested path to reaching a better version of ourselves. Data feels honest, and in many ways it is. 

Humans are complicated; data, at its essence, is straightforward. The promise of the quantified self is that an app, a watch or a wearable can help us make sense of a chaotic world, one step at a time.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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