Opinion | Even the best smartwatches may be bad for your brain

The bottom of my rock was when I caught myself under a table with a nice dinner fixed by my phone. I opened the smartwatch app and finished running an hour ago to see if the numbers assigned to “Training Status” improved. I didn’t get the numbers, so I closed the app, updated it, and frowned a little. Was it broken? My companion asked what I was doing. “There is nothing,” I lied.

At first, I loved the smartwatch that was running fast in the race marathon. Suddenly I had metrics about what my body didn’t even notice: lactate threshold, VO²max, heart rate variability. Every night I received a complete report telling me what this device thought about my performance.

Immediately I couldn’t stop thinking about the numbers on the clock. I was addicted.

At the dawn of the smartwatch era, when the Apple Watch was introduced in 2015, Tim Cook touted the new device as an ambitious technology, the next must-have gadget with apps and features. Smartwatches, which have made a volatile start, have seen a surge in popularity in recent years and are expected to ship 230 million units by 2026. Nowadays, companies are selling these devices not as luxury goods, but as essential medical devices that are a must-have for stakeholders. About health. In the pandemic, this pitch seems to work.

Some brands have an ECG monitor that can check for atrial fibrillation and a pulse oximeter, which is a useful feature during coronavirus infections where hypoxia may be a useful signal. Others can track the exposure of your skin to the sun. If you fall into the woods, Apple guarantees us with a pretty alarming ad, that watch can ask for help. And this kind of surveillance is not limited to watches. The smart bed, which reports last night’s sleep status in the app, is one of the weapons of health monitoring home technology. A light bulb that measures heart rate and body temperature is under development. A breathing product called a lumen breathes into a tube that claims to be able to read metabolism “to see if there is enough energy for training or if it needs to be refueled”. Invite users to.

The message is clear. Self-quantification is no longer just ambitious, it is essential. The well-known roster of healthy-looking people supports these claims. Koros makes the watch for Eliud Kipchoge, the world record holder for the marathon. Jennifer Aniston says she’s “addicted” to Ouraling, which tracks everything from breathing patterns to blood oxygen saturation to sleep. In 2017, Gwyneth Paltrow promoted the Frederique Constant Holological Smartwatch and the keen command that women “move more, sleep better and improve”.

But does continuous monitoring of this vital sign really bring better health? There is no clear answer yet. According to one study, people who try to lose weight using wearable technology actually lose less weight than those who don’t use a watch. According to a review by the American Journal of Medicine, “there are few signs that wearable devices will benefit health outcomes.” Another problem is that the wearable’s ability to measure is incomplete for some metrics.

I’m also worried that one of the major drawbacks of this quantification may be ignored in the safety net marketing. It can interfere with your ability to know your body. When you outsource happiness to your device and convert it to numbers, it’s no longer yours. Data is an alternative to self-awareness. Ask the gadget to tell you when and how to move, when you are tired, and when you are hungry.

With a smartwatch, I sometimes woke up in the morning and checked the app to see how I slept instead of noticing that I was still tired. When I discovered that my watch could measure my stress level, it was as if I had begun to carry an expensive rat on my wrist. The more I used my watch to monitor my stress, the higher my stress level.

This is an extension of our hustle-oriented culture, says Brad Stulberg, executive coach and performance expert author of The Practice of Groundedness. “Our culture promotes a limited belief that measurable outcomes are a major determinant of success, and these devices influence it,” he told me. “It’s like trying to win this game, not living life. Instead of learning how your body feels, you have numbers.”

Adding social or competitive components, such as the community features of the fitness apps Strava and Peloton, can quickly change the sense of control and empowerment that fitness can nurture. During a marathon training cycle, I discovered a new trick. The clock measures your overall fitness level, assigns numbers, plots changes over time, sorts by gender and age, and tells you how to compare your level to others. .. I longed for that approval.

If it feels like an addiction, it can function like a smartphone or other digital addiction. Dependencies are designed to facilitate these devices.

Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University and author of “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” which explores addictive behavior, said: “A wearable device that tracks my behavior is probably not a bad thing because it’s just a watch. For example, it’s just monitoring your heart rate. It’s about physical health.” But in reality. It is very likely that you will be forced to stick to these wearable devices in a manner similar to addiction. “

These devices not only record your actions, but also influence them and allow you to come back. It will rely on external validation. This in itself is not new. It’s easier to read numbers than to instinctively know if you’re healthy, as you would when weighing with a scale, calculating an obesity index, or measuring a step count. But you can’t quantify the path to good health. The reality is much more difficult.

For a while, my smartwatch probably helped me get healthier. I know I’m healthier. But I began to feel that my health was no longer rooted in my body, or even my mind. I didn’t know how the workout was done until I opened the app.

I generally used the numbers and the successes they verified as a shortcut to feeling good enough. The exercise no longer helped me recover from the pressure. It was added to it.

Of course, these watches are useful. For health data, we will notify you to move more or make an emergency call if you fall into the forest. Many of us make better choices when we know that we are being monitored.

However, if you think it may be time to get out of the numbers, we suggest a challenge one year ahead. Try to get the clues out of your body, not your device.

That’s what I did. At some point in the pandemic, I took off my watch. It left a streak of skin on my wrist where it had blocked the sun for years. Then I lost it and never bothered to find it.

The adjustments didn’t always feel natural. If you outsource your confidence to something else, it will take a while to get back. But in the end, I stopped counting and stopped tracking.

Now, from time to time, I run back in the horror of a pandemic and feel better as I relearn how to fly, like the adult “Hook” Peter Pan. When they are completed, the miles will disappear. And I’m the only one who knows what happened.

Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) Is an editor and producer of opinions writing about gender, ambition, and power. She produced the Emmy Award-nominated opinion video series “Equal Play.” This has brought about extensive reforms in women’s sports.

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