Your Own Best Enemy

Self-monitoring fitness gadgets are the newest tech trend. Psychologists explain the obsession.

Call it the Moneyball (or "In Da Club") approach to health and wellness. In an age of analytics, digital fitness trackers such as the FitBit and Jawbone UP provide daily snapshots of everything from your activity levels to calories burned to amount of REM sleep. But what’s really behind the explosion in the watch-yourself market? Is it simple navel-gazing or are there actual body benefits to pitting self against self? We asked two psychology professors to explain the obsession with techy monitoring toys:

1. The brain craves immediate results
Research shows that new exercisers who receive prompt feedback after completing an activity are more likely to stick with it than those who don’t — and a visual representation of how many calories you burned today vs. yesterday gives you concrete and immediate feedback. "These devices are a way of keeping score and seeing the progress you’re making," says Tim Benson, MD, a Harvard psychiatrist who focuses on resilience in athletes. "The hit of measurable accomplishment is inherently motivating."

2. We love competition
Competition is a key motivator, both in work and in fitness, and the devices turn mundane activities (running, sleeping) into a game of sorts. "People are happiest when they’re challenged," Benson says. "Yes, some people are exercising for exercising’s sake, but there’s an added benefit when there’s a challenge — even when we’re competing against our former selves."

3. We become our own coaches
We're less likely to slack off when a trainer is watching, and the devices can take that one step further by making you hold yourself accountable. "Individuals who exercise based on a program designed by someone else may feel more external pressure to exercise, which may fade over a long period of time," says John Tauer, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas and head coach of the men’s basketball team there, "but self-monitoring involves a degree of autonomy that’s critical to the cultivation of intrinsic motivation." 
 

4. We're perfectionists
For people who are laser-focused on results, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting a perfectly calibrated picture of your overall fitness. Those who are most likely to use tracking devices tend to be "mastery-oriented," says Benson, and more focused on the end goal (getting in shape) than the journey (say, enjoying a workout class). The upside of this desire to achieve perfection can serve an additional health purpose, letting you keep an eye on your physiological progress and pause when you're pushing yourself too hard, he adds.

One caveat: Tracking your run times and bench presses with a harsh drill-sergeant mindset might not set you up for the healthiest relationship with fitness. "There’s a difference between pushing yourself and perfectionism," he says. "Ask yourself: How do I feel after a workout? If you perpetually feel like you’re falling short, that’s not the right path." 

We put the latest gadgets to the test. Click here to read the reviews.