Aoife Geary asks – Smartwatches: Fitness friend or strap of shame?
Smartwatches were meant to be a tech aid to get fit, be more conscious of our activity, and improve our overall health. But as they get more and more sophisticated, are they really nudging us towards a healthier lifestyle or just adding more pressure to be productive?
There have been many iterations of the smartwatch from the primitive Nike+ Fuelband which tracked your steps and awarded you points; to the Samsung Gear Fit which monitored your steps, sleep, and social notifications; to the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch 8 which is expected to monitor your heart rate, emerging pimples, sex appeal, hopes and dreams, and overpower the voice inside your head that tells you bangs are a good idea.
The smartwatch has evolved impressively but a focus on fitness and wellbeing remains constant. It’s a focus that clearly resonates with consumers – last year more than 202 million people were using smartwatches. This number is expected to rise to 231 million by 2026.
I’ve been among the millions of smartwatch wearers for almost a year now and I’ve been weighing the pros and cons. Here are my key findings:
Stats alone are pointless (and boring)
My smartwatch has armed me with a plethora of stats around how many steps I’ve taken, how many calories I’ve burnt, my resting heart rate, my Vo2 max, my hours spent sleeping, and so on.
Initially, I welcomed such detail assuming that all this knowledge would lead to a powerful yet seamless health transformation. I soon realised that simply looking at these numbers didn’t make me feel any more in tune with my body. In fact, I was often deciding how I should feel based on what my watch told me. Apart from the fact that I shouldn’t need a piece of tech to tell me how rested I am, it was almost self-fulfilling. If I had 5.5 hours of sleep on a night where I planned for 7, I would expect to be tired for the day. It didn’t lead to any real change in my behaviour either. Knowing that I took 17 steps Monday didn’t necessarily motivate me to take 17,000 Tuesday. You have to want to change, as the saying goes.
Another side effect of smartwatch use is that people are discussing their health stats more. We’ve normalised the exchange of step counts in everyday conversation. Everyday, tedious conversation. We need to do better. Just because you know the stats, doesn’t mean anyone else should. Surely, we’re not that strapped (sorry) for conversation.
My device has a little more attitude than I like
Some of its notifications are just short of character assassination.
“Just so you know, you barely moved yesterday and failed to reach any of your goals.”
“That’s okay, just try to do better in every area of your life today. You got this!”
“Time for bed.”
“It’s your bedtime.”
“Do you think 4 hours of sleep is a good way to start the day?”
It feels less like an incentive to be healthy and more of a passive aggressive reminder that I’m a large sloth. I get enough of that on Instagram, thank you very much. There might be a setting for when you’re hungover or overwhelmed or menstrual but I’m yet to find it.
I’m on the fence about my device’s trustworthiness
It’s a little unnerving to think of the level of data being tracked on these devices, particularly given that they appear to be ramping up their more clinical features. What if in the future our health data could be used to undercut a claim made to our health insurance or a job application?
“Your CV says you’re a self-motivated, productive woman who loves reading, running and yoga but your watch suggests the only running you do is to pick up your Deliveroo. How do you respond?”
If that sounds a little Black Mirror dystopia, so did a lot of things that have happened this year, not least the curtailing of women’s reproductive rights in the US. This led to many women deleting their period apps so their data could not be used to build a criminal case against them if they obtained an abortion.
I spend enough time in front of a screen as it is. Having updates buzzing on my wrist is an unnecessary addition. I decided I do not need another (albeit smaller) device to tell me about emails, messages and breaking news. I turned off these notifications and it feels less aggressive.
There are, of course, positives to wearing a smartwatch. My experience aside, studies show that people who track their activity do tend to be more active. And being active has proven health benefits, from decreased risk of heart disease to improved sleeping patterns. The feature that allows me to buzz my phone from my watch to make sure it’s not in the washing machine has also saved me hours of grief. It’s worth wearing for that reason alone. If you’re committed to the smartwatch but feeling a little too dependent on it, there are things that can help:
- Turn off the notifications that aren’t necessary or helpful. If you need to check your work emails, use your phone.
- Listen to your watch but trust your body. Getting stressed over not reaching your step goals undermines the health benefit in the first place. Sometimes, it’s not time to stand. Sometimes, it’s time to lounge.
- Feel free to undress that wrist once in a while. Let loose. Allow your device to die and lie there uncharged. Take fewer steps. Take no steps. Crawl from the couch to the bathroom and back again.
- When the urge to discuss the specifics of your sleep hits, resist. Broaden those conversational horizons.