The Head, Nicola Huggett

A few thoughts on... Fitness trackers and doing the right thing

I am always a little bit (actually a lot) behind the curve on new technology as some of you here will know. During my working day, I have watched a lot of people start to check their wrists multiple times a day and their phones too and finally, two weeks ago, I succumbed and bought myself a Fitbit. They are interesting things, and at the start, having one of these tracking devices is quite fascinating. As you probably all know, they can tell you how many steps you have taken, and they transfer that to kilometres so you can feel really good about yourself. You can load the detail onto your phone which shows the data in lots of interesting graphs. If you can bear to sleep with it on, it tells you, very scarily, how much you have slept and how many times you have woken up, and if you choose to go to the real extremes, you can put into it everything you eat and it tells you when you have eaten your chosen number of calories for that day (I haven’t done that for fear of how much chocolate I would have to record!)

When I first got my Fitbit, it was really exciting, and once you have one, you notice how many other people are wearing them and a bit of a competition can develop. The best thing of all is when you reach 10,000 steps and the Fitbit buzzes enthusiastically on your wrist in celebration. That is a really good feeling, especially if it is before lunchtime. When I was doing a bit of research about this, I found out that the market for wearable fitness tracking devices is big business, with the number produced expected to increase from 17.7 million in 2014 to 40.7 million this year. According to research, more than 100 million fitness devices will be sold across the globe by 2019. Interestingly there is actually no real science behind the 10,000 steps idea. In fact, it's believed that the concept of 10,000 steps originated in Japan in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Pedometers became all the rage in the country as Olympic fever swept through Japanese society. One company came out with a device called a manpo-kei, which means 10,000 step meter.

It was a business marketing slogan before it was a theory but it resonated with people and since then 10,000 steps have become a commonly acknowledged goal for daily fitness across the world.

The aim of having something that tracks your activity is definitely a laudable one, I can see that. Our family dog is very happy that quite often she gets an unexpected walk before bed time if I haven’t quite made it over the 10,000 mark that day. But I also think it is interesting about what motivates us to do things and whether the need for an electronic device to tell us to do something that is inherently good for us will eventually extend to other things too. I hope not.

The first known court case using Fitbit activity data is going through the legal system in Canada at the moment. A law firm in Canada is using a client’s Fitbit history in a personal injury claim. The person bringing the claim was injured four years ago when she was a personal trainer, and her lawyers now want to use her Fitbit data to show that her activity levels are still lower than the baseline for someone of her age and profession to prove that she deserves compensation.

The extensive use of these could see insurance companies, for example, insisting that claimants undergo assessment via fitness tracker. In the business world, companies with wellness plans have seen employees given fitness trackers as part of company encouragement to boost activity, as well as potentially reducing company insurance premiums. I should say to the staff, don’t worry, I am not going to suggest that. Recently I also read an article about a different kind of tracker, that looks very much like a fitness tracker, except that it monitors your bank balance. It gives you a warning when you’re spending too much, and an electric shock when you go into overdraft. I don’t think I am going to be investing in one of those.

So to what extent is something that you wear on your wrist or carry around with you, useful for making us do what is good for us and for the people around us? Should I rely on that and that alone to make me do the right thing? Well in fitness terms I think it certainly is quite useful, but I hope we don’t eventually have to rely on something like that to remind us not to do something unkind, or say the wrong thing or act selfishly. We will need to be our own tracker for the fitness of our souls.

I believe it is important to remember that we need to keep working at that, and practising it well, to build up those all-important habits of kindness and thoughtfulness, just like we need to build muscle tone or fitness levels for good health. We are, in the end, responsible for our own actions and let’s try to keep working on looking after one another without the need for an electric shock reminder every 10,000 steps.