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Out There: The Upside of Unplugging

Columnist Susan Lacke wonders if fitness technology hurts more than it helps.

Columnist Susan Lacke wonders if fitness technology hurts more than it helps.

There’s a feature on my GPS watch that allows me to “compete” with a virtual training partner during my runs. With a push of a button, I can create a pace bunny to taunt—I mean, motivate—me over the miles. When I drop off the designated minutes per mile, my watch buzzes and chirps until I get back on pace. If I continue to lag, a little stick figure appears on the screen, running in circles and laughing with a French accent, à la Monty Python. Okay, fine—it doesn’t actually laugh, but I’m certain that’s a feature that will be added in the next software upgrade.

I named my partner “Chase,” but I’ve since learned he also responds to “Asshole”—as in “That asshole needs to stop mocking me, or I’m going to throw this watch into the ravine.” (Lest you think I am particularly hard on Chase: I have made the same threat to training partners in the flesh.)

I also have an app on my phone that tracks my daily activity. I installed this after the realization that—thanks to my work-from-home job as a writer—I spend a lot of time on my rear end in front of a computer. With this app, I’m alerted whenever I’ve been stationary for more than an hour, and the notification won’t shut off until I’ve moved around for a minimum of five minutes. This is why, if you live in my neighborhood, you’ve probably seen me pacing the street in my bathrobe and snow boots, cursing at a phone screen.

No wonder I get so excited for bedtime, when I can hide my electronics, turn off the lights, and crawl into my sleep-tracking device. I installed a mattress sensor—which tracks movement, heart rate, and respiration during slumber—a few months ago while researching for an article on sleep quality. Feeling confident in my snoozing skills, I was shocked when my sleep tracker gave me a score of 65 out of a possible 100 on the first night.

“This is bull,” I yelled at the screen in the morning. “I am a master sleeper! I’ll show you!”

I’ve spent every night since trying to achieve a high score of 100. The best I’ve gotten so far is an 80. I’ve become so obsessed with getting a perfect score in sleeping, it keeps me up at night (literally – in bed, I’ve been reading medical research about sleep in hopes of cracking the code to a 100-pointer).

So, to recap: I am racing a stick figure in my watch, I have a cattle prod in my smartphone, and my sleep tracker is making me lose sleep.

Technology is supposed to make our lives better, right?

In our increasingly digital world, we’ve become obsessed with tech. A study by International Data Corp predicts more than one third of adults in the United States will utilize some form of wearable health tracker by the year 2019, be it a fitness tracking watch or smartphone app. With these devices, we can receive real-time data on everything from heart rate to steps taken to calories burned. We can plot training mileage on a graph, tally biofeedback in a spreadsheet, and gamify everyday activities like walking and sleeping.

But is more data always better? Are we actually healthier because of this additional monitoring? Is it wise to be plugged in all the time?

I’m not so sure.

Maybe all this technology is hurting us more than helping. Last week, I saw a fellow runner trip over a curb because her attention was focused on adjusting the smartphone in her armband. Shortly before that, a friend of mine shared she was rehabbing a running injury because she paid more attention to the pace on her watch instead of what her body was telling her (which was “You’re an idiot if you think you’re actually going to hold this pace.”) Meaningless phone alerts frequently interrupt meaningful work, conversations, and lives. And my husband would really like me to turn off the lamp and stop reading sleep studies in bed.

Perhaps it’s time to unplug. Most of us would say our lives are stressful enough—do we really need technology to identify even more items for the laundry list of things we could be doing better?

This month, I’ve committed to cutting the cords and reconnecting with life as it is—not what a computer chip says it should be.

Instead of racing Chase, I head out the door wearing a cheap plastic doodad that only features the time of day and a stopwatch function. I’m not sure what my average pace has been, or how many miles I’ve run each day. I couldn’t tell you what my heart rate is or how many calories I’ve burned. I don’t have a picture from my smartphone to document each run. But I do know this: The canyon routes I run are stunningly beautiful. I had never truly been paying enough attention to notice that before.

And if I squint my eyes and turn my head, I think I might even see Chase at the bottom of the ravine.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.