Physical fitness has always been important to me, though I never bothered to track how much or what I did. At best, I would make a mental note of the trails I had hiked or count laps in the pool. But after serious injuries sustained in two car accidents, tracking has become more pertinent. The physiotherapy and psychology clinics keep notes regarding my improvements, both physically and mentally, for my lawyer to review as he prepares the accident case.
With a chronic pain condition, swimming is the most comfortable sport. For many months, my ten-year-old, $12 stopwatch in its water-resistant plastic bag accompanied me to the public pool.
As I started my laps one day, a man sharing my lane offered some advice about my choice of timing device: “You should get a watch.”
Taken aback, I replied, “I don’t have $200 for a watch.”
“This was a $330 Garmin fitness tracker on sale for $175,” he continued, clearly proud of his purchase.
I was annoyed with the criticism and moved into the next lane, where I received exactly the same speech from a different man sporting a $300 Tomtom fitness tracker–but he paid $180.
To be fair, I had considered a more expensive timing device before these conversations. Having heard the same speech twice in one day, I decided the time to upgrade had arrived. While I had no intention of paying $200 to do the work of my old stopwatch, I kept an eye out for a Boxing Day sale.
My new lightweight watch had myriad other features including tracking for indoor runs, walks, and pool swims. Outdoor tracking used GPS, handy for open water swims and hikes. In addition, it monitored sleep, steps, and heart rate, and included a cellphone finder, date and time, stopwatch, and could receive message notifications—all for $70 including GST.
My psychology team had concerns with the new purchase because I sometimes had trouble managing a proper pacing during my recovery, always attempting to “outrun my feelings.” Acknowledging that what gets measured gets managed, they worried I might push harder to continuously advance my performance rather than attend to my condition. I assured them that I only wanted to accurately keep track of my activities, especially my heart rate and sleep.
The fitness tracker came with minimal instructions, so it took a while for me to figure out how to track my heart rate, which inevitably shortened the battery life. When I started tracking hikes in the spring, the battery lasted only 8 kilometers as my heart rate fluctuated. By summer, my fitness had improved, and the watch could track up to 15 kilometers, if my heart rate remained steady.
Knowing my heart was stronger, on one occasion, I decided to lightly jog down a mountain trail. While I felt great, the fitness tracker kept alerting me that my heart rate was dangerously high. I breathed through my nose and slowed to a walk but the alarm continued until I stopped to eat. To my relief, trail runners have reported a similar problem with more expensive trackers. Another time, I thought my watch was broken, because it could not find my pulse, but everything else worked. I realized later my blood pressure was too low. With the timer feature, I sometimes take my pulse the old-fashioned way, more out of curiosity than concern.
Happy with my physical progress, the physiotherapy team complained about my poor sleep aggravating my brain injury. With stress and anxiety stemming from chronic pain, falling and staying asleep is difficult. Exercise from swimming and hiking induced a good night’s sleep, but on the days I didn’t do these activities, my fitness tracker recorded poor sleep patterns. By making a conscious effort to reduce my stress levels before bed, my fitness tracker has sometimes recorded a sleep score of 80, though I regularly score in the high 70s. The competitive edge never truly leaves; I never would have predicted that I needed to slow down to increase a score.
Insurance companies often incentivize people to use fitness trackers by lowering premiums or subsidizing the device cost. On the surface, these incentives help people become healthier. But because of long-term data storage, no one knows how the data might be used in the future. Premiums could go up if someone stops using the tracker–or companies could refuse to insure certain people based on their data.
I enjoy reviewing my exercise data at the end of the week, though the results often reinforce what my psychology team feared: I rely on the technology to help process difficult emotions rather than adopting a mindful approach to my feelings. I do find that tracking activities and seeing my progress makes recovery and goal-setting easier in many ways. At times, I worry if the insurance company can ask for my activity data. My lawyer warned me about insurance companies using social media posts against clients, but hasn’t voiced concern about my tracker. Maybe in the future, he will have to advise clients differently. And maybe in the future I will have some advice for the swimmers in my lane.