Can we have too much body information? Yes.

This week I’m in the Netherlands, in Utrecht at a great conference on health policy and nudging.  What’s nudging?  It’s the name for a bunch of policies aimed at helping people making the choices they want to make about money, food, exercise, etc. by shaping the environment to make those choices easier.  I attended sessions, for example, testing out the idea that if you move healthier foods (like fruit, nuts) to be more accessible in convenience stores and cafeterias, people will buy more of them.  Turns out, this works.

If you’re intrigued by this idea, there’s a lot written about it.  You could start with the book called Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, but I might recommend a more entertaining but similarly informative book called Predictably Irrational by economist Dan Ariely, one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

I also gave a talk at the conference on the use of apps and internet-enabled devices to help us improve our health behaviors (like taking medicines, exercising, eating in ways that are healthy according to standard nutritional guidelines).  Many of you bloggers and blog readers already use FitBit, Strava, and other apps and devices to record, log and publicize your physical activity.  So do lots and lots of others.  And people seem to like them for a lot of reasons.

I am not a fan of these apps and devices, for a few reasons.  One of them is this:  Their technology allows us to record and display information about all sorts of metrics– heart rate, number of steps completed, weight to the tenth of an ounce, etc.  They also keep records of all of these metrics, which (as we know) vary A LOT.  In particular, body weight has high variance– it shifts over the course of say, a week, up and down by up to 4–5 pounds.  This is just what bodies do, independent of our food intake and exercise on any particular day.

Oddly enough, on the way to the airport in Boston, my neighbor (who kindly drove me there– thanks, Melih!) told me about an app called Naked 3D Fitness Tracker that created a 3D model of you so you can visualize and note body changes over time.  They’re not kidding.  Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 11.22.17 PM.png

 

This app displays the results of scanning your body– you stand on a rotating disc in front of a mirror with a scanner.  It rotates you around, scanning you.  Then the information is stored on this app.  So what do we see here?

This person can look at metrics of virtually any surface of her body, comparing one side to the other, comparing today’s metrics to yesterday’s, etc.  In this picture, we see that, for one part of her upper thighs, the right side is .2″ larger than the left side.

I can’t see the difference.  Can you?  Of course not.  This seems to be to be an app designed to increase obsession with irrelevant shifts, fluctuations and undetectable-by-the-naked-eye features of our perfectly fine bodies.  On the website, someone talks about training uses for the app, in particular for body builders.  Fair enough.  But to think that this level of body surveillance is useful for the general population is quite another thing.  Here are some of the problems I noted in my talk about this sort of super-micro-attention to body metrics:

  • Many metrics will turn out to be irrelevant to health and health goals; they track nothing in particular.
  • Many metrics fluctuate over time in ways that are indicative of normal body functioning, but may and can be and are alarming to people already super-attuned to using created metrics as proxies for progress toward health goals.
  • For those at early stages of pursuing health goals, broader or qualitative categories may be more useful, e.g. took walk or bike ride or did yoga (ignoring time or distance or level of physical intensity).

For the last item, I was inspired by reading Cate’s post about what counts as a workout for their 217 in 2017 workouts challenge.  See more about it here.  What I loved about the post was that Cate pointed out that there is a lot of variation in what might count as a workout– for Cate and Sam, bike commuting didn’t count unless they did something else, or it was in terrible weather conditions (making them also badass for doing it!).  But for others, bike commuting might legitimately be considered a workout.  You do you, you decide what is exercise for you.  The key thing here is to do the workouts, and count them.

I love this idea.  It’s a bit late for me to sign on for this year, but I will definitely do it in 2018.  I like the idea of seeing and recording what I’m doing at a level of description that works for me.  On a day that I’m sick with a cold, maybe it’s enough that I walk/take the bus to the dentist rather than drive.  On other days, doing a 40–60k ride would be my workout.  What counts (in more than one way) is that I do my workout-according-to-me.  It may not be important how many calories I burned, how long I worked out, how long or how far I walked/ran/rode/skied/paddled.  It’s up to me, at whatever stage, on whatever day, to determine this.  All of this other information may be unnecessary or distracting or discouraging or feel shaming to me, in which case I just don’t need it.

Of course, there are plenty of folks who like metrics, in which case, enjoy.  You do you.  But I’m arguing here that there are reasons and contexts in which the metrics don’t help and can even hurt.  If you’re one of those people (and I am sometimes), then I’m saying this:  ignore the metrics.  They’re not giving you information that’s useful for you.

And now, I’m going for a bike ride with my friend Marcel in Utrecht.  For how far and long– who knows?  We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

About catherine w

I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.

10 thoughts on “Can we have too much body information? Yes.

  1. Sam B says:

    Right. Agreed about lots of these trackers, but not all. For example, Strava is more about performance than anything else. Speed, cadence, and elevation profiles aren’t body information.

    Liked by 1 person

    • catherine w says:

      As you know, I have different sentiments about info trackers, even when they’re looking at speed or cadence or distance or time. Which is cool, as I really like being in a conversation in which we get to share our different perspectives. I don’t, however, think we disagree particularly, though. I think that there are times when it’s not helpful at all to get the information you listed above; sometimes all I need to register is that I went out on the bike. Of course, for training, or just for fun, tracking these things is and can be fine. It is not always fine for everyone at all times; when it’s not (and we can predict this sometimes), I say it’s better to track at a different level of granularity. Which you knew, of course… 🙂

      It would be cool if we could predict or screen for what kinds of information would be motivating, or fun, or useful for people at different stages of physical activity (or some other kinds of activity or processes). Let’s talk about this more when we see each other in Toronto. We’ll have plenty of time on the ride, too!

      Like

  2. Jean says:

    The 3-D app only looks useful for a very short time period for body fitness builders.

    Well, let’s see here: Yesterday, we hiked only 5 km. in the Rocky Mountains yesterday along a path we normally do in winter snowshoeing. We went from approx. 1,200 metres high to 2,000 metres high. Then a few hrs. later we did a short steeper hike for only 4 km., to look at the back-end of Lake Louise…which we’ve never seen before even I’ve lived in the city for um..last 6 years.

    If I told an experienced hiker all this, it would have been peanuts. I was tired because it useD leg muscles not used in my regular cycling.

    As for not counting bike commuting for not being work-out: thjis is NOT useful for any municipality that is working hard to design cities and promote car-dependent citizens: by encouraging use of active , non-car transportation. I hope people here in this blog become really attune about constructing neighbourhoods that are within cycleable, safe walking distance to transit, shops and services.

    Yes, I do count my bike commuting and utilitarian rides as workouts. Every time. Last weekend it was cycline for nearly 45 km. in 1 day just to get some groceries and bed sheets in the suburbs. I live downtown. We must have done 5 mini hills with our weighted panniers.

    All this cycling no matter what distance, helps when you go cycling and hiking at higher elevation in real higher mountains where there’s less oxygen.

    It used to annoy me to watch guy cyclists on their carbon bikes gleefuly pass my partner who was mounting hills with his pannier weight. My partner is someone who has biked across Canada and U.S. twice. What do those yahoos know?

    Never judge metrics for performance. You don’t know the nature of person’s journey in exercise and in life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • catherine w says:

      Hi Jean– oh yes, I think we all agree (Sam and Cate and you and me) that bike commuting is and can be a great workout. I know plenty of people who rely on bike commuting successfully for fitness, especially during the winter months. And when you do it in such a dedicated fashion like you do, it is more than a workout– it’s a way of life.

      Sound like your hike was fun and a nice workout. The key thing is that it was a fun workout FOR YOU. Who cares what hikers think? Today I rode 53K with my friend Marcel along canals and more canals out in the countryside from Utrecht. Our average speed was low, but we stopped to take pictures, look at some sights, etc. I loved it! And it was a good workout for me.

      Like

      • Jean says:

        I’m sorry if I seemed hard-edged and annoyed. I used to track my mileage….nearly 20 yrs. ago. Then I became disinterested and removed my cyclemeter. I just know approx. distance of cycling to destinations, routes to do stuff or enjoy the ride.

        Ultimately I’m not a true numbers person in terms of exercise..it’s more of a “feel” thing abouit my level of fitness by becoming attuned to one’s body..heart rate, certain muscles, sweat, etc. Doing any form of fitness activity daily and if positively, can help heighten your understanding how your body functions well and when it doesn’t. Then figuring out a micro level without self-flagellation, why and how to get better.

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  3. Jean says:

    I mean to promote more active commuters that don’t depend every day on car travel.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. TheOriginalPhoenix says:

    I think a bike commute is definitely a good workout. I agree with you that having all those metrics can be unproductive. The human body isn’t a compilation of numbers. It’s a living, breathing mass trying to stay alive and constantly changing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • catherine w says:

      Yes, I completely agree– while math and metrics can be fun (I get this totally), comparing them when they fluctuate so much just on their own can make us sad and discouraged. IF that’s the case, put the apps and devices in a drawer and just go out to the gym, studio, bike path, woods, neighborhood, wherever.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kim Solga says:

    Great post, Catherine! I LOVE the part where you note that body weight fluctuates *naturally* and *independently* of our actions. This is something I struggle to keep in mind whenever I’m weighed/weigh myself, and it’s so key to mental health around body image.

    Apps, devices, and – yes – the metrics doctors collect at, say, annual physical exams all play into a false sense that we have TOTAL CONTROL over our bodies and our weight, when we don’t. We live in multiple, overlapping contexts, social and environmental and economic, all of which impact our physical beings. If we forget that, then step on a scale and see an increase when we (for example) have been exercising hard or dieting hard, the result is a sense of defeat and lack of control – which is entirely counterproductive.

    NB: I’m not suggesting exercise should be keyed to weight loss, not at all. But lots of us do that anyway, and get discouraged when one doesn’t map neatly onto the other. You’ve reminded us here of another important reason why attempting to create such a neat map is not only self-defeating, but contrary to the way our bodies naturally work. Thanks!

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