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:


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:

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.



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