I'll never forget the day I first walked 26,000 steps. I was on vacation in Krakow, Poland with my boyfriend, and that day we'd visited the city's ancient Wawel Castle, traversed medieval squares, picked over grimy antiques at outdoor markets, swung by Oskar Schindler's factory, and, at one point, found ourselves standing on the stones of what had been the Krakow Ghetto. At the end of the day, we returned to our Airbnb so jammed with historical relevance that we could barely speak. Then I took one look at my wrist and squealed like, well, someone who had not just been standing upon the relics of an atrocity.
"I broke my step record!"
"That's great, baby," my boyfriend answered automatically, in what had become a very, very familiar routine.
I'd been wearing pedometers and fitness trackers on and off for most of my adult life. When I was in diet mode, they became another way for me to measure how well my day had gone, steps being nothing more than negative calories or net carbs in my bonkers brain. When I was in between diets, they sat in cluttered junk drawers, now measuring just how big a piece of shit I was for not working out again.
Thank god I quit all that nonsense, right? A few years ago, when I escaped the diet cycle once and for all, I gave myself a fitness fresh start, too. Thanks to the magic of intuitive eating, an amazing trainer, and the body-positivity movement, I finally understood that exercise wasn't a barometer for my piece-of-shit-ness but a way to feel genuinely good. I learned to work out in a truly sustainable way, and see fitness as a way of taking care of a body I love, rather than punish it for being so hateful.
Given all this grand enlightenment, I felt totally secure strapping on a fitness tracker again. This time it wasn't the focal point of my obsession, but just a way to gather data, and to add a little fun to my exercise habits. I got a little virtual high five for hitting my step goal and that was nice! When I didn't hit my step goal, that was, you know, fine. It was way better when I did, but I wasn't gonna beat myself up over it because I don't do that anymore.
And I really didn't. But about a year ago, I realized there were a whole lot of things I was doing, instead. For example:
1. Devoting more and more of my gym time to the treadmill. I wasn't overdoing the exercise in general, but I definitely wasn't diversifying my routine. Sure, I liked the cathartic sweat I worked up on the StairMaster, the new upper body muscles I discovered on the rowing machine, and the incredible difference I felt when I found I could do a real plank. But not as much as I liked the little number on my wrist going up. Planks didn't make the number go up.
2. Walking around my bedroom at the end of the day, just because I was at 9,700 steps, and wouldn't it be nice if I could make it an even 10k? Oh, fuck, it's 11:58 p.m.! Better circle the room just a little bit faster, before it hits midnight and the numbers reset. Ooh, maybe I can get a jump on tomorrow's step count, too! Wait, no, that's crazy. Is it, though? Yes. Well…no, yes.
3. Defending my tracker to friends who suggested it might not be 100% accurate in counting my steps.
"Doesn't it count a step if you, like, wave your hand?" they'd ask.
"Um, I don't usually spend the day waving my hands in the air like I just don't care, okay? Anyway, no, it doesn't," I'd reply, waving my fist around as if gearing up for a punch. Then I'd shove my wrist in their faces just to prove how right I was.
4. Measuring visits to historic foreign cities in steps rather than the incredible sights I'd seen and experiences I'd had.
Okay, it wasn't quite that simple. Even at my most obsessive, I was nowhere near as bad as I'd been in my dieting days, back when I believed a workout wasn't over until you heard something pop. But finally, I had to admit to myself that even if I wasn't waving my hands in the air, I super duper did care.
I'm certainly not the first person to get hooked on her or his fitness tracker in a not-so-healthy way. Ominous reporting on "The Dark Side of Activity Trackers," has popped up everywhere from Redbook to the U.S. News & World Report. Even David Sedaris wrote a humor piece about getting hooked on his Fitbit for The New Yorker, and the next day everyone's Facebook feeds swelled with a chorus of, "OMG, THIS IS ME."
You're right: It is you. It's a lot of us. As humans, we're designed to enjoy incentives and rewards, and fitness trackers access that instinct incredibly well — sometimes too well. That doesn't make fitness trackers bad. They're great! They've shown millions of fitness newbies just how easy and accessible exercise really is. They provide a certain level of helpful data and an incentive to take the stairs instead of the elevator sometimes. But there is a dark side — and that particular feature comes with us, not the trackers.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you just want to say "hi," that's cool, too.