Opinion: The case for exercising without metrics
There's joy in movement, but if you only focus on burning calories, you might just miss it.
Exercise and metrics are currently intertwined with one another.
This hasn't always been the case. Initially, the analysis was localised on gym equipment. A little digital screen on a treadmill would let you know how fast you were running, or what your incline was. More advanced digital readers gave a real-time approximation of how many calories you burned on the elliptical.
Now however, tools that monitor and analyse our workouts are everywhere. They're in our phones and on our wrists. I can't even walk from my bedroom to my bathroom without my phone telling me how many steps I've taken (it's about 15, FYI).
As the digital age traps us in a state of constant optimization, nothing - including physical movement - is off the table. Our technology is constantly telling us how much we walk, how much calories we burn and how fast we move.
But just how helpful are all these metrics? Do they really push us to do better, to run faster, to burn more calories? Is that all there really is to exercise?
In my case, I used to be fascinated by the metrics, but it wasn't long until this fascination quickly turned to frustration. I'd head out for a run around the block and return home, panting, exhausted and drenched in sweat. Eager to see how fast I was going, I'd check my pedometer, only to see that, in the eyes of my phone, it hadn't even registered that I'd been running at all. It thought I was out for a brisk walk.
The USP for exercise monitoring devices is that they encourage physical fitness. As worthy as this is, a number of eating disorder experts have pointed to their potential to trigger perfectionism and disordered eating in some individuals.
Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs at the UK charity BEAT spoke to ITV News in 2019 about the potential dangers of gadgets like FitBits.
He said: "So many of these apps or devices that encourage competition, excessive counting, whether that be on a day-by-day basis, or compared to other people, can be very dangerous."
Movement beyond measure
Indeed, while enthusiasts may point to benefits of these gadgets, it begs the question - is exercise something that needs to be analysed at all?
In my case, I've found real joy in movement, but the second I start focusing on speed, calories or distance, that joy dissipates and is replaced with feelings of disappointment and inadequacy.
The pressure to optimise turned me off exercise for years. It was only when I disabled my devices that I learned to focus on the pleasure of unmeasured exercise.
Additionally, there is so much more to exercise than just burning calories. A FitBit can't measure how satisfying it is to feel the sweat dripping off you after a particularly enjoyable workout. It can't capture how good it feels to sync your sprint up with the beat dropping during your favourite song. If you play a team sports, it can't tell you how triumphant it feels to win.
Indeed, there's an inherent pleasure in exercise, but it might escape you if you only focus on metrics.