The decision, whether taking stairs or the escalator is the better choice, has been charged with a new socio-political dimension lately. Both speed and convenience do hardly matter, yet it has turned into a question of fitness and health. As the Fitbit advertisement points out, “fitness is the sum of your life.” It can be found between beginnings and endings or between high and low ends of the exercise spectrum. Gone are the times when physical activity was confined to particular spaces reserved for heavy exercise—like gyms. Today we live in an almost endless sea of fitness opportunities, called your daily life.

Of major importance in this change is the popular trend of logging one’s activities with digital tracking devices, practiced by what is called the Quantified Self community. In its modernized form self-tracking’s popularity started roughly around 2007. Journalists Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly then advocated for the tracking of personal bodily and behavioral metrics in order to make well-informed decisions about one’s own conduct of life. In analyzing your personal data you gain “self-knowledge through numbers”—as their slogan goes—in form of feedback-loops, indicating that your future conduct depends on your already collected data. In Foucauldian terms self-tracking is a technology of the self. As it is a deliberate practice towards a self-reliant, fulfilling and healthy life, many self-trackers use this strategy of data-engagement to monitor their health, fitness or productivity. They are logging their heart rate, running distances or managing task lists. A focus on mainly quantified data, is a fairly new feature to this approach. Specific parameters are singled out in order to measure, interpret and (sometimes) correlate them. This, however, often means reducing and standardizing complex phenomena in favor of comparable and manageable results. Crucial to these practices are the tracking devices themselves which have been integrated into bracelets. Variations like Fitbit’s come with an app that displays the aggregated data in numbers and charts on your smartphone or computer. They actively remind you of their presence by buzzing, beeping and prompting you to be active via short messages. Their implemented algorithms and display-functions are socially constructed assumptions and charged with specific notions of health, fitness and self-responsibility.

With regard to the aforementioned fitness dynamic, I argue, that the pursuit of fitness, understood as specific practices of self-conduct, has invaded daily life through the popularity of such affordable tracking devices and their parametric logics. More precisely, these move the focus from features like time and distance to the counting of steps. In doing so, fitness becomes an all-encompassing and constant quest in everyday life.


Quantifying Fitness—From Time to Steps, from Separation to Diffusion

Tracking one’s physical activity is a key aspect of self-tracking, often taking the running or bicycling distance or repetitions of exercises as yardstick for the evaluation of one’s personal fitness. Yet by now, counting your steps has become the most important tool. This parameter is widely used in tracking applications and devices. Linked to that metric is the benchmark-number of 10,000. This fairly big number represents a catchy goal, but is in fact just a rough estimate for the amount of daily activity. It is predominantly associated with the recommended activity level of adults aged 18 to 64 years, and shaped by different health-related organizations, such as the American Heart Association, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

However, looking more closely at these recommendations shows that steps aren’t their predominant metric, after all. Time and intensity of activity are central instead. Recommend are 150 minutes of weekly exercise or 30 minutes on at least five days a week. In terms of distance this amounts to roughly five miles. The suggestions also feature a range of exercise types (aerobic and strength training) and various intensity levels, which ideally should be combined in order to achieve a balanced level of fitness. According to several scientific studies, this basic amount of physical activity gives one significant health benefits including lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, weight problems and depression.

Looking at the parameters in use, time and distance foster a separation of activity from one’s daily life. 30 minutes of physical activity still demands to spatially and mentally separate training from other daily activities. Going for a jog, for instance, needs preparation: push other appointments aside, then change your clothes, put on running shoes, and find a fitting space (the park or the treadmill), while the activity itself is one single unit of running a continuous route or distance. Steps, by contrast, is a much more low-key parameter in daily use—once a byproduct of other activities, now entering the main stage: Steps are taken between other appointments or while doing other chores. By changing the measurable parameter to steps, large portions of our daily life are reframed as having fitness potential. You are not just going shopping, but doing something for your health and fitness as well by continuously accumulating more steps.


Quantified Fitness—Lowering the Bar

Beyond that, change from distance tracking to step counting implies two more aspects that prompt the integration of activity into your daily routines. Lowering exercise intensity and duration of each single activity become more important. Splitting up our running activity comes with a lower intensity of it, because not everyone is sprinting to catch the bus anyways. Rather it directs attention to all the small steps in between. Although higher intensity activities are recommended as well, the entry level into the world of fitness is lowered from running to brisk walking. Additionally, duration is broken down into short units. One does not need to run or walk the recommended five miles of distance at once, but collects continuously little amounts. Tracking applications display the steps as added number over time. It zeroes again at midnight, but becomes archived as a bar in a weekly or monthly chart. Studies acknowledge the benefit of small activities during the day. Here the backdrop is inactivity. The ever so small activities are supposed to break up long periods of inactivity, which are framed as bad for your health. The new counterpart to an omnipresent fitness idea has become sedentary inactivity!

Finally, by lowering the bar to that point, every single step taken is defined as activity and is in some infinitesimal way a benefit for one’s overall health and fitness level. Or as Fitbit’s advertisement proclaims: “Every moment matters and every bit makes a big impact.” By monitoring yourself with wearable tracking devices you keep the integrated fitness idea ever so present. This urgency is embedded into the technology, which functions as a constant reminder. There is always room for improvement, we are told, since every move is registered and displayed as your current step counter status.

About the Author

Tristan Dohnt

Tristan Dohnt works as a research assistant at the department of Sociology, LMU Munich, and is part of the joint research project “Nutrition, Health, and modern Society: Germany and the US.” He is currently working on his PhD thesis entitled “Quantified Self: Fitness, Measurement and Technologized Self-Relations.” His academic interests are practice theory, science & technology studies, sociology of the body and methods of qualitative social research.

» More articles by Tristan Dohnt

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