Fitness Devices Make It Harder to Lie to Ourselves

A brief, personal note inspired by the Apple Watch: I probably won’t ever want to buy one — but I am a wearable-tracker guy these days, and I’m skeptical about the skepticism.

Julia Belluz at Vox suggests that wearable fitness devices won’t do much to change behavior: “For now, applying common sense is probably useful: For centuries, everyone — not just those who can afford the latest Apple tricks — has had access to other less-sexy technologies (scales, measuring tapes) that provide extremely accurate and predictive data about your health (weight, the measure of your waist), and those haven’t spurred behavior change or reversed the trajectory of the obesity crisis in America.” Fair enough — but what fitness devices do, at least for me, is make it harder to lie to myself. And that’s crucial.

It’s all too easy to convince yourself that you do enough walking — that shuffling around filing books is a pretty good workout, for example — that you only fail to exercise once a week or so. O.K., maybe twice. But then there’s your Fitbit telling you that you only walked 6,000 steps and burned 1,800 calories yesterday, and that you only did serious exercise three days last week.

You might say that the truth will show up on the scale and your waistline eventually. Yes, but that’s too future oriented. You need to guilt-trip yourself in the here and now.

I’ve also taken to wearing a heart-rate monitor when doing cardio exercise. Again, it’s too easy to lie to myself — “I’m working really hard!” — but the number that says that you’re only at 70 percent of your target rate tells the truth. Obviously, none of this would work if I hadn’t at some level made the decision that I needed to fight this aging thing. But for me, at least, the technology helps a lot, not because of the information, exactly, but because it makes self-deception harder.