Is it doing more harm than good?

By Jaymes Shrimski | Photos by Crew and Redd Angelo/Unsplash

I’m the kind of guy who occasionally worries about ending up like Daniel Kaluuya’s character on the episode Fifteen Million Merits from the dystopian series Black Mirror. Kaluuya sits on a stationary bike, eyes glued to a projector casting a vision of a bicycle track in front of him. With the dull gaze Kaluuya has come to manufacture so well, and the slow but steady churn of his legs on the pedals of the stationary bike, the character earns his meris—and probably gets a sick workout too.

Why my worry though? At the same speed you can bring yourself to a CrossFit box, you can access a cellphone, find a workout app, and get started—a neatly robotic voice dictating “Let’s begin.” Now, there are some terrific applications out there for tracking fitness and helping you reach your goals; I will always agree that it works if it works for you. I do however find myself on the skeptical side of these applications for a number of reasons.

It’s Often a Completely Solitary Activity

Here’s where our parallel with our opening image becomes clearer: You are likely at work, alone, with the slightly pleasing prod from a digital interface. The occasional drone of “You’re doing great” may very well be motivating you, but I find myself a stickler for the motivation from mates at the gym (usually assuring me that “It’s all you” as I press a weight over my head).

The Tracking Features Can Be Obsessive

This I found coming largely off the strength of an article, the writer of which tried out Strava. Though, precise tracking is of practical use for many, in my casual pursuit of health and wellness, I settle for feeling good about 40 minutes at the gym. I’ve seen, in my occasional use of fitness apps, tracking of all sorts—from scatterplots to line graphs and little ticks on a calendar—and I’m sure there’s something to suit my needs, but I’ve so far found it all a bit too much.

I will always agree that it works if it works for you. I do however find myself on the skeptical side of these applications for a number of reasons

Data Is a Mess

Privacy and perhaps the lack of it are a hot topic in light of the various breaches on social media platforms. Fitness apps are not immune to these attacks. Case in point, 150 million accounts of MyFitnessPal being breached earlier this year. The good news is that no money was lost—credit card information was not included on the list of previously secure information captured. But this is a clear wake up call for everyone (myself included to a great degree) who regularly use apps, especially the for free sort.

They Don’t Form Habits

“The app marketplace is largely unregulated and users make decisions based on developers’ descriptions of apps,” says David Conroy, professor of kinesiology at Penn State University. With such a wide array of and widely used apps available on app stores, it is easy and reassuring to assume that app developers are muscled, fitness concerned, health maniacs with degrees in relevant studies. The fact of the matter is that many of these apps are founded and constructed by fellows with far fewer muscles than we’d like and a health-concerned acumen to match.

It comes then as no shock that “the researchers found most of the descriptions of the examined applications incorporated fewer than four behavior change techniques.” This is relevant given a large number of fitness app users are folks getting off their comfy couches and giving fitness a more lengthy look–overcoming “barriers to exercise” and using fitness apps as a vehicle for sustained behavior change. The ideal effect of fitness apps is helping us get off our couches and running or sweating by some other means again and again until such time we needn’t use the application—finding motivation within ourselves.

Running with a friend, trying to outpace them as you do, shouting at your gym buddy as they’re about to give up on their bench press, joining run clubs that have been popping up around Manila—these are the sorts of motivational programs and tracking schemes where you can put your phone down, meet new people, and navigate around a Black Mirror-esque future

There are other places outside the app marketplace to find motivation: running groups, fitness boxes, gym trainers, etc. The list of options available for tracking your fitness outside of an application are endless. On this list, you have the option to be more sociable, maybe even a little more creative, and a whole lot more competitive.

Running with a friend, trying to outpace them as you do, shouting at your gym buddy as they’re about to give up on their bench press, joining run clubs that have been popping up around Manila—these are the sorts of motivational programs and tracking schemes where you can put your phone down, meet new people, and navigate around a Black Mirror-esque future.

We do, I strongly agree, have to find what works for us as individuals. But for maintaining fitness over the marathons of lives we lead, locating an internal motivational force is important. Perhaps the road to self-motivation is clearer outside the digital space of fitness apps, and at some point or another, it’s a road any fitness-concerned individual would want to walk down.