It starts as a new healthy habit. Our heart rate monitors, glorified pedometers, or calorie trackers often enter our lives deceptively innocent, wanting only to improve our well being. Yet sometime along the way, lost in the “she’s just trying to get her ten thousand steps, of course” or the refusal of a warm chocolate cookie for the sake of a number, these health aids transform into our masters.
I fear this same slippery slope of health monitoring may be an unfortunate result of Duke Health’s study of 180 Gilbert-Addoms first-years. These students received Apple Watches or Fitbits in exchange for participation in a research study exploring health habits.
The objective of the study is noble. Researchers hope to use sleep, activity, and diet data collected for personalized health recommendations. One first-year even noted that during information sessions and in emails, the researchers tend to emphasize the importance of mental health over physical activity throughout the study.
“I do like that the researchers have put less emphasis on tracking and more emphasis on mental health and stress related to school,” first-year Ian Acriche said.
I was relieved to hear Acriche’s words. Large research projects too often undervalue the mental health of participants. Yet the fact that the researchers felt the need to even include such stringent emphasis on mental health throughout the study shows the inherent mental health risks in quantifying and tracking freshmen health for a year.
The hidden message: measuring your steps, activity, sleep, and diet everyday should not be normal. It is not natural. And without combating it, these practices can undermine a healthy relationship with exercise, sleep, and food.
The study initially focused on sleep patterns in an effort to identify better sleep habits. Being aware that one’s sleep is monitored might lead to efforts to sleep more. In addition to potentially helping sleep patterns, I can see the merit of this study in proving just how messed up many of our sleep schedules are.
The freshmen I interviewed, however, all expressed that their sleep schedules have not improved since beginning the study.
“As a [first-year], I am just trying to get used to having a different schedule than in high school,” Acriche said. “I have the same bad sleep habits, but now my Apple watch just reminds me of them.”
“I have not changed my actions, but I am more cognizant of how much sleep I am getting at night,” first-year Kelyce Allen said.
Researchers did not give the students simply a sleep tracker, and they did not only ask for sleep data. In addition to sleep, the yearlong study includes weekly surveys about students’ diet and activity levels. The Apple watch has the capabilities of a small robot with an impeccable memory and annoyingly effective notification properties — on one’s wrist.
In fact all the other capabilities of the smart watches attract more attention and potential obsessiveness. As far as exercise, many cited their watches as motivators for increased exercise.
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“My Apple watch is a motivator for me to get out and exercise… I would say that my exercise has definitely increased,” first-year Lauren May said.
And the notification features of the watches garnered even more attention, sometimes with shameful remarks about the frequency of glances toward the screen.
“I check my watch maybe twenty times a day. It is just easy for checking the time and all the notifications,” May said.
“Let’s just say that I check my heart rate once an hour. My apple watch also sends me weird information like I should stand up or move around sometimes. I’ll just tell it to shut up,” Acriche said.
As someone who has personally struggled with my relationship towards food and exercise partly because of a fitness tracker, I was triggered at the thought of a study requiring first-years to monitor these metrics. What if the study lights an obsessive tendency in a student that could have been avoided? Hearing people talk about increasing exercise for a watch reminds me of dark moments walking around my backyard to hit an arbitrary step goal. I would not wish that on anyone.
Yet in asking questions, I have tried to separate my own experience with a fitness tracker and give room for potentially positive experiences. It is when these actions become second nature, an instinct and not a choice that the watch starts to gain control over us.
Freshmen transitioning from high school to college are arguably in the most formative periods of their life. They deserve to struggle with their identity, habits, self image, and relationships without the crutch of a quantitative tracker. Moreover, at what other point in your life is crucial to form a sense of self than between the ages of 18 and 22?
Smart watches and fitness trackers are not inherently bad. I use a Garmin smartwatch to track my steps, calories, and activity levels. But I rarely check how many steps I walked in a day, an insufficient measure of the day’s healthiness. I don’t compete or compare my steps with those of my friends. I do take it off completely at least once a week to let my skin and my mind breathe. I do check the time often — every three minutes during a biology lecture to be specific.
It took a long time for me to get here. Months of obsessively wearing and monitoring my steps and months of forgetting my Garmin in the corner of my room and correcting a hideous watch tan. Now I feel like I have finally reached a healthy equilibrium. And despite reservations about their own mental health, all the students I interviewed said they intend to continue wearing the watch after the study.
We as a culture still value our physical well being, how we appear to be on the outside, and what our actions show over our mental health. Turning to fitness technology to fix our mental well being and restore a natural sense of self is the very problem.
Naima Turbes is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "mind over matter," runs on alternate Tuesdays.