1. Fitness trackers in everyday life: Are wearables making us healthier?
In the recent years, fitness wearables and mobile applications have made monitoring the body and tracking healthy routines more popular than ever. People are now counting their daily steps, monitoring sleep-patterns or tracking their calorie intake. Self-tracking, however, is by no means a new phenomenon, as weight-scales or diaries have been around for many decades (Crawford, Lingel & Karppi, 2015, p. 480). Keeping track of body weight, for example, has been done privately and was separated from other actions of daily life. Given the technological possibilities of wearables, they shift self-tracking into all areas of everyday and social life (Neff & Nafus, 2016, p. 3).
With the increasing immersion of wearables into the daily life, they are often assumed to have particular impact, especially on people’s health. Advertisings of wearables suggest fitness trackers to foster healthy behaviour and enhance the amount of fitness activities of the users. Even in medical context, wearables are now introduced as treatments for people to create healthier habits (Rich & Miah, 2016, p. 3; Gilmore. 2015, p. 7). As the hype about the health properties of wearables does not seem to go anywhere, I want to raise the crucial question whether fitness wearables are actually making users healthier. Within me posing the question, I want to give space for both, the positive and negative effects on health that come with the use of wearables. Also, a lot of research on the effects of wearables on health has been limited to the individual, however I want to also consider the effects on societal level.
In order to answer this quite profound question, I will try to examine the term “health”. Then, the concept of social practices will assist me with discussing how health can be achieved throughout everyday life. A critical analysis of how wearables can change people’s routines into healthier one’s will follow. Yet, this essay aims to go further than a mere replication of studies on the effects of wearables and rather address different perspectives in the field. Therefore, I will also include different perspectives on self- tracking and touch upon the pressure that can arise from self-tracking, not just individually but in society.
A conceptualization of health in everyday life
In advertising, wearables are attributed to improve one’s fitness, general well-being and becoming a happier person. “Live happier and healthier with our free app” (Jawbone UP, 2017) is the promise for using the Jawbone UP App that is accompanying the wristband. The Microsoft Band is advertised with the slogan: “Live healthier and achieve more.” (Microsoft, 2017). These promises arise the overall questions: What is actual health? How can health be achieved?
When we think about health, healthy behaviour and well-being, images arise in our heads: young, lean and good-looking people living a content life. These images are certainly influenced by advertising of fitness gears and other tools marketed as influencing our lives positively. To give substance to these visions, we should consider the often-reviewed definition of the World Health Organization. Here, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 2017, n. p.). The WHO has highlighted how health goes beyond the presence of physical health and should rather be the compilation of multiple health components, also including mental and social health. Throughout the years, this definition has served as the basic groundwork for various conceptualizations of health, which have extended or altered the initial formulations by the WHO (Saylor, 2004, p. 100). Although, I cannot go into much detail about these more profound definitions of health, it is important to note that the term ,complete’ has been criticized by many authors (Larson, 1996, p. 182; Garner, 1979, p. 14), because full health is impossible for human beings.
Now, how can health be achieved? I make the claim that health is not a stage you’re either in or out of, it rather is the result of everyday activities and daily decisions that can either be healthy or unhealthy over longer periods of time. Drinking alcohol once a year probably will not have an impact on one’s health, whereas daily drinking results in a rise of health risk problems. Here, the concepts of social practices which derived from Bourdieu (1990) and Giddens (1984) are worth considering, because they describe the deeper components of daily routinized actions.
Cecily Jane Muller defined these practices as being composed of meanings, materials and competences (2015, p. 58). To illustrate the concept of social practices, I will describe the social practice of going to work. The meaning of going to work can be to earn money, to gain self-fulfilment or even because it is expected from society. Materials for going to work are infrastructure, public transportation, a car or riding a bike. Lastly, one needs competences to perform the social practice of going to work, like how to use the materials of infrastructure or the bike. The concept of social practices can be applied to many daily actions of our lives: buying food, making meals, driving cars or going out with friends.
Coming back to the example of drinking alcohol once a year, as opposed to drinking frequently: The once-in-a-while-actions are certainly not considered as social practices, because they do not belong to our routinized actions of everyday life. Drinking frequently and incorporating it into daily routine, is however an unhealthy social practice. Yet, it is very difficult to label a social practice as healthy or unhealthy in general (Muller, 2015, p. 61). For example, a social practice can be socially healthy for someone, like going on a night out, but it might be physically unhealthy because of less sleep that night. So, to further explore the question whether wearables make us healthier, we should examine if they can provoke any change in social practices and daily routines from rather unhealthy patterns to healthier ones.
The impact of wearables on our health
To evoke change in social practices, wearables need to provide some kind of change initiators to either adjust or replace unhealthy patterns with healthier options. The fitness devices try to initiate this change through providing motivation for certain activities and in attempting to create habits for maintenance (Gilmore, 2015, p. 3). Here, wearables start with basically raising awareness of one’s body condition and their daily movements so far. They provide the users with all kinds of information about their status quo of heart rate, sleep or activity level. Additionally, wearables supply a comparison of the collected data to standards within the category and give stimulus for improvements through setting future-goals. Hence, wearables make users aware of how they compare with normative ideas of hours of sleep, activity levels or calorie intake.
This usually is the first step towards improving categories of everyday life: knowing the self in numbers and where to improve behaviour in order to come closer to normative ideas of a healthy body. For example, some are advised to improve their walking distances, some should cut down calorie intake, others are recommended to get more sleep during the night. Coming back to the social practice of going to work, using a wearable could encourage refraining to use the bus and either walk the distance or take the bike. However, social practices require long-term engagement to be changed, otherwise old patterns will prevail (Muller, 2015, p. 62).