It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when fitness trackers truly entered the mainstream. Perhaps it was when President Obama was spotted wearing one while hanging out with Jerry Seinfeld in an old Corvette Stingray. Maybe it was when David Sedaris limned cleverly on his experiences sporting one in the English countryside. Maybe that was when the backlash against them began. According to Google Trends, 2015 seems to be the year that we started counting our steps en masse. Whatever the specifics, at some point in the past few years, 10,000 steps supplanted the much less manageable 500 miles mandated by The Proclaimers in 1993 as the cultural standard for measured exertion.
Ever since, the capacity to digitally track ourselves with the help of Fitbits, Garmins, Apple Watches, Kate Spade smartwatches, and Xiaomis has become a fixture of modern life. And while plenty of people use these devices to check email, buy scones, and board trains, a recent Gallup survey found that 19 percent of Americans monitor their health stats through fitness trackers and mobile apps. In another recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of Americans claimed to have embraced wearable tech — a figure equal to nearly 70 million people.
But what’s more interesting than the sheer volume of wearable tech users is the breadth of them. Though fitness trackers haven’t proven to be as accessible to lower-income groups — they range from $30 for a Neekfox tracker to $1,500 for a Hermès-branded Apple Watch — Pew and other observers have noted a broad adoption across a slew of demographic categories, from age to ethnicity to geography.
Fitness trackers and their high-tech ilk are now the tools of suburban walking groups, mahjong leagues, city-dwelling tech workers, amateur pilots, Crossfit junkies, Quantified Self cultists, and your uncle Howard. Nefarious corporate powers have used them to ruthlessly surveil their employees while nefarious parents have used them to ruthlessly surveil their children. Big insurers have implemented them into health schemes and incorporated them into Orwellian-esque “workplace wellness programs.” In 2018, a surreal-yet-humanizing heat map purported to show the data trails of Korean troops traversing both sides of the DMZ. And last month, seven members of the Senate were seen wearing Apple Watches at President Trump’s impeachment trial, in violation of the ban on electronics.
Despite this (slightly goofy) permeation, the rise of semi-obsessive data monitoring wasn’t a given. After all, fitness and technology trends are notoriously fickle and fadist. “It has, essentially, one line of products, with variations on the theme,” Vauhini Vara offered in a story for The New Yorker titled “Will Fitbit Go the Way of the Palm Pilot?” in 2015. Indeed, the story of how we fell in love with our Fitbits is a complicated one, one that centers on informational overload and ambient stress as much as it revolves around technology and the quest for healthy living.
One limited, but pretty straightforward explanation for the continued appeal of wearable tech is that, unlike the Thighmaster or 8-Minute Abs before it, the products have evolved from electronic pedometers to reflect the endless curiosities consumers have about their lifestyles. “It’s the diversity of applications that’s attractive to the diversity of the population using them,” says Dr. Walter Thompson, the associate dean for graduate studies and research at Georgia State University. In other words, if a user is interested in digitally tracking their sleep, their heart rate, their menstrual cycle, their caloric intake, their running route or mile pace, or their blood oxygen levels, the possibilities increasingly exist. “I don’t pay attention to my heart rate, I don’t pay attention to my caloric balance,” Thompson says, “but I’m really impacted by my sitting time and when my watch tells me I have to stand up.”
Each year, Thompson coordinates the publication of the Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends, a global ranking of the 20 most popular fitness trends as chosen by a consortium of doctors, trainers, kinesiologists, and other health professionals. And since 2015, wearable technology has dominated the field, holding the top spot all but one year. Thompson attributes the staying power to the new wide-ranging features that have staved off the obsolescence that typically accompanies an ordinary fitness fad. “The Apple Watch now can provide for you an electrocardiogram [EKG],” he explains. “I tested it out myself it’s pretty accurate. … My guess is the next thing that they will do is give you the ability to send that to your doctor.”
This trajectory hints at another obvious aspect of wearable tech’s popularity: It occupies an unlikely overlap between seeming both cutting edge and highly practical. Beyond the countless hard-data features, consumers can now use trackers to battle everything from subpar intimacy to lousy golf scores. A culturally standardized fascination with fitness data doesn’t just speak volumes about present-day attitudes about health, but offers a peek of what the future of medicine might look like if the trend holds.
Wearable tech may one day help a physician know whether a patient secretly counts folding laundry as part of a medically-recommended daily exercise regimen or considers having a Coors Light as basically the same thing as drinking a glass of water. “What I can tell you is that a few years from now, I truly believe that all research studies that involve some behavioral component or behavior-change interventions, most of the studies, if not all, will involve either a smartphone or some of these devices,” says Dr. Spyros Kitsiou, a professor at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “This is the future of research.”
Predictions like these are likely to inspire a variety of Luddite appeals for a return to the analog world, especially as wearable tech companies consolidate and get swallowed up by bigger companies. Much to the chagrin of privacy advocates, Google purchased Fitbit in November 2019 for $2.1 billion, roughly the same adjusted-for-inflation amount that it paid for YouTube in 2006. (Notably, by then Fitbit had purchased its competitor Pebble, months before another competitor, Jawbone, was sold off to creditors for parts.) Broader concerns about security, data privacy, and the use of personal information gathered by fitness trackers and third-party apps have been aired by everyone from Redditors to EU consumer privacy watchdogs, and not without good reason. In 2018, for example, an Australian college student on his summer break exposed a security flaw in the fitness app Strava, which revealed extensive user data including the locations of several US military bases in war zones around the world.
Critics also point out the consuming nature of fitness tracking itself, which gets lumped into contemporary tech ailments like digital distraction and excessive screen time. And then there are those who view technology’s seep into an already suffocating wellness culture with not-unfounded concern. It’s easy to see the pathologies of the Instagram and Optimization Eras and fret about their potential influence on personal fitness. There are, after all, “If you see me collapse, pause my Garmin” T-shirts out there, a reference to athletic strivers pushing themselves to break their personal records at the risk of keeling over along the way.
But beyond their shiny, wide-ranging possibilities or a high-minded station in the Internet of Things, the fact that wearables are projected to be a $52 billion industry in 2020 may also have to do with a bigger sense of powerlessness among consumers. As Americans contend with lifestyles geared toward inactivity and increasingly blurred lines between work and home, some view fitness trackers as potential correctives. “I think people are looking for ways to integrate more movements into their life considering that we’re so sedentary today,” says Dr. Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and the author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind. “Most of our jobs don’t involve movement or are just staring at a computer and so, we’re looking for the antidote to that.”
In assessing the fitness-tracker trend, Yarrow notes a culture where scheduling and socializing are bygone pastimes and where misinformation and anxiety are rampant.
Within this paradigm, wearable tech appeals not because of their features, but because they stay consistent in a contemporary life where new diets, superfoods, or exercise fads crash into disrepute as quickly as they rise.
We live in an ecosystem in which concrete data about ourselves can seem like the only reliable compass. Even the most minute particulars can create baselines in an environment bent on constantly demanding more from everyone at all times. “We’re just given so much information that scares us and makes us a little paranoid,” Yarrow explains. “We are more craving of reassurance. I think this trend falls more into the category of calming our fears and reinforcing that we’re doing okay and that everything is all right.”
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