Measuring Calories

Tracking Helps, Except When It Doesn’t

“What gets measured gets managed.” This bit of wisdom from Peter Drucker got its start with Lord Kelvin. By now, the whole idea of tracking has become a bit of a holy grail for weight management. We get many prompts for tracking: weight, diet, and physical activity. And generally, keeping track of what we’re doing is a good step in the direction of making behavioral changes.

Except when it’s not.

The Case of Fitness Trackers

Some people get quite a boost from the encouragement of a fitness tracker going off when you hit a daily goal. Simple pleasures, right? But a new study reminds us that what’s good for one is not necessarily good for all.

In the American Journal of Health Education earlier this year, Charlotte Kerner and Victoria Goodyear published a study of Fitbits in adolescents. A sample of 84 boys and girls received Fitbits to use for eight weeks. Researchers collected pre and post measures of motivation and psychological need satisfaction. They expected to find boosts in motivation and need satisfaction.

Results showed just the opposite.

After eight weeks, these youth found that exercise was less satisfying. Their autonomous motivation went down. They were more likely to feel that exercise was pointless – a state of amotivation. An initial buzz of enthusiasm gave way to feelings of incompetence whenever a participant didn’t hit the magic goal of 10,000 steps. Physical activity ceased being fun.

Making Health Into a Chore

We should note here that the exception doesn’t make the rule. In plenty of situations, keeping track can be very helpful. Studies show that under the right conditions, keeping a food diary helps. Tracking weight can help. And activity trackers can be very motivating. Just ask David Sedaris.

But never say always.

When good health becomes a chore, new patterns of behavior become unsustainable. Food has an important role in our lives for pleasure and conviviality. Weighing can be toxic to the health of someone with an eating disorder. And the best physical activity is fun.

When tracking becomes a burden, it’s time to rethink.

Click here for the study of Fitbits for adolescents and here for more from the New York Times.

Measuring Calories, photograph © Wes Dickinson / flickr

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December 1, 2017

4 Responses to “Tracking Helps, Except When It Doesn’t”

  1. December 01, 2017 at 10:03 am, Rhoda Klapp said:

    So the teens got bored with exercise after a while. What happened to the no-fitbit control group? What control group? You mean they wrote this up to prove exercise is boring? I coulda told ’em.

    • December 01, 2017 at 10:59 am, Ted said:

      Good point, Rhoda. And if we promote “boring” exercise, how likely will success be?

  2. December 01, 2017 at 9:41 pm, Susan Burke March said:

    I like the friends feature on Fitbit, and share my step counts with a bunch of different friends. I find this slightly competitive and motivating.

    • December 02, 2017 at 3:10 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Susan!

      I’m finding my Fitbit very motivating, though I don’t share my counts. That thing about one size doesn’t fit all is wisdom for the ages.