BHealthy Blog

Is Constantly Measuring Activity Derailing Fitness Goals?

Perhaps Santa left a Fitbit under your tree and you are still figuring out how to use it. Or you are using it everyday without fail to track your activity.  Either way, Baptist Health cardiologist Dr. Scott Davis has some new research with surprising results.

Who did the research?

Using gadgets to track how much we eat, sleep and exercise is a 21st century obsession. But new research from Duke University finds unseen costs to measuring daily activity.

They found that while measuring prompts us to do more, it can make us enjoy activities less — and do less of them once we stop tracking output.

So what does this mean?

In general, tracking activity can increase how much people do. But at the same time, measurement has these pernicious effects. Enjoyable activities can became almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun.

How was the research conducted?

They conducted six experiments in which participants colored, read or walked. They studied the effects that tracking had on the amount of each activity that participants completed, and on how much they enjoyed it.

For example, in the first study, a group of students spent 10 minutes coloring simple shapes. Those who were told as they worked how many shapes they had completed were more productive, but reported enjoying themselves less — and colored less creatively — than the group whose output was not tracked.

We’re curious creatures and tracking information is very seductive, even for enjoyable activities. Simply making it available made them want to look at it, but the very people who self-select into measurement are the ones who are hurt by it.

What were the results?

Again, participants who could see how many steps they had taken walked farther but enjoyed it less. They also reported walking seemed more like work, and were less happy and satisfied at the end of the day.

Measurement’s unintended harmful effects can thus extend beyond decreasing an activity’s enjoyment to reducing subjective well-being.

While measurement can increase how much people do while they are tracking their behavior, it can negatively affect how much they do in the future.

Rather than merely drawing attention away from an enjoyable activity, measurement also draws attention towards output, which undermines motivation and overall happiness.

What is the take away with measuring our activity?

Their findings show it’s important to be mindful about what we track, and why.

This doesn’t mean we should stop measuring our daily activity, but we need to balance that increased productivity against our underlying enjoyment. For activities people do for fun, it may be better not to know.

Here’s a link to the research.