Media Moment: But What Does Your Phone Say?

Media Moment: But What Does Your Phone Say?

Sarah Wolfson works at CMCH as an Administrative Associate, and is an editor for Media Moments.

It’s that time of year again when we’re bombarded with commercials and ads for dieting and weight loss. The most popular New Year’s resolutions frequently involve weight loss and exercise. People joke about how much they ate over the holidays and how it’s time to “get back on track” or how this is finally the year to “get fit.” And while I find the pressure around dieting and weight loss already problematic, what strikes me this year is the number of ads I’m seeing for health tracking devices. At first glance, I’m intrigued. I’ve had many friends tell me how great their Fitbits and calorie-counting apps are, or others recommending that I get a Garmin to track my activity. However, I worry that we’re becoming so reliant on externalized information that we’ve lost the ability to self-monitor our own bodies and experiences. If not careful, it’s very easy to disregard our own body’s important signals in favor of data from these devices and apps, and hurt ourselves in the process.

A report came out this fall that some sleep-tracking app users have become so anxious about their sleep metrics that they find it difficult to fall asleep at night. When I first heard this report, I laughed at the irony of the situation and wondered how such a silly problem had arisen. But when I took the time to digest and think about it, I realized how much of my day is tracked, and how my own reliance on those number led me to harm my own body in the most counter-intuitive feedback loop.

Two years ago, I was so focused on my running stats that I stopped listening to my body’s warning signs, and injured myself. Because all I cared about were the numbers and constant improvement presented back to me on my running apps, I didn’t notice the pain in the back of my leg or the pinging in my hip until my IT band was so overworked that I couldn’t sleep or walk without a limp, let alone run. My injury prevented me from running for months, during which time I realized that I’d shifted my feelings of accomplishment from my body to my apps and the increasingly impressive numbers they displayed.

That’s a pretty severe example of tracking dependence, but many of us make subconscious behavioral alterations that we don’t even notice as a result of these tracking apps. Many of us are familiar with the cliché images of kids pulling out their phones to post whatever they’re doing on social media to prove that it happened. “Pics or it doesn’t count.” But that phrase, and those images capture a truth for many us – we’ll hike mountains and need to check our steps to feel validated that we did in fact, “work out”. We’ll rely on calorie numbers from nutrition apps to tell is when we’re full instead of our own stomachs’ signals. I’ve skipped workouts by convincing myself I didn’t sleep well enough the night before, based solely on information from my Fitbit, even though I felt fine enough to run. Or I’ve felt over-full by convincing myself I needed to eat a certain amount of calories for lunch because my app told me to, even though my stomach was telling me I was full. I worry that we’ve forgotten to listen to our bodies, and have forced ourselves to believe what our tracking devices and apps tell us over how we actually feel.

My hope is that we’ll begin trusting ourselves again and start feeling comfortable with the un-trackable aspects of our own bodies. Hunger signals, pain signals, exhaustion and soreness are all forms of communication our bodies are equipped with to let us know the same information we rely on external devices to tell us. We need to remember that human bodies aren’t always predictable, and we don’t operate according to specific algorithms or work perfectly after doing x, y, or z. So while I still love using running apps to track my distance and speed, I prioritize focusing on my body and hip to let me know if it’s a good idea to run, or if I’m too fatigued and need to rest. I’ve had to learn to ignore the ping from my runner app telling me it’s time for a run. It assumes that the more I run, the better I’ll feel, but that’s not always the case. Our bodies know best, so let’s start listening to them again.

-Sarah Wolfson
-edited by Kristelle Lavallee
-photo by N i c o l a on Flickr