Ditch the Fitbit: A Summary of the Book Unplugged
Author: Jenni Aguilar
Research Support: Lance Mann
The book, Unplugged, by Brian Mackenzie, Dr. Andy Galpin and Phil White offers useful insights into our W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) culture’s tech addiction and our biased way of viewing physical fitness. In just the 1st quarter of 2016, Americans bought nearly 20 million wearable fitness trackers. Due to our addiction to smartphones and fitness wearables, we are rapidly losing our evolutionary strength and intuition. Don’t think you’re addicted? Check yourself HERE. The average user of a smartphone looks at or uses their device 1,500 times a week. That’s 9 times an hour. Trust me, you’re not that important. I’m not either, I mean, we’re not on call to make sure we stop nuclear war, right?
So what’s the problem with over-use of tech-y fitness things? A lot. Hang in there. To our ancestors, being physically fit wasn’t just about social status or levels of attraction, it was essential for hunting and fending off predators - survival. Our ancestors were alert, looking, listening, smelling, moving, hangin’ with fellow tribe members and enjoying their surroundings, 24/7, outside, navigating the planet. The natural pressures that the Earth dishes out require fast reflexes, a strong immune system and a quick, creative brain. Now compare this to our little time spent outdoors (some people report as little as an hour a week spent outside!) and now so many of us are outside (if we left the gym at all) with our fitness app ‘instructor’ yelling in our earbuds, desperately trying to be heard over “Stronger” by Kanye West.
Kanye may approve but evolution does not.
The multi-million dollar fitness wearable industry offers what seem to be obvious benefits. To have a motivating and goal-setting mini-computer on your wrist seems like a no-brainer. We can now easily know our heart rates, distance traveled, number of reps and our times in relation to friends and past workouts. All this quantifiable data should be super-helpful and make us super bad-ass. But it just might be making us super-bad (at being human). We better #F.E.I.S.T.Y. up. Face it. Evolution is Smarter Than You.
The problem with this form of tech is that it taxes our self-awareness and intuitive knowledge of our bodies which has been biologically passed down through evolution. Not to mention being cut off from our surroundings and staying in a narrowed virtual state of mind. This reeks havoc on our psychology. In one study of women who use the Fitbit device, 30% of daily users felt that the device was the enemy and made them feel guilty. A full 59% felt that the Fitbit controlled their day. Their entire day - eating, walking, where to park their car, when and how to move, when to sleep and more. You see, tech is nearly always liberating and oppressive, at the same time.
Maybe we feel like we are wearing the device, but maybe it is wearing us.
In more ways than one, technology changes the way we release neurotransmitters, our habit-reward systems that release “happy” hormones like dopamine. They are normally released when exercising (and during sex, when sharing a meal and many other activities), hence the term runner’s high. Runner’s high is one name for a peak state, or what is known as flow. During flow states, our brains release multiple neurotransmitters that change how we perceive time, enhance cognitive ability and push us into an altered state of consciousness where we problem-solve faster and perform better, even at our best. Whenever we look down at our smartwatch, smartphone or hear some encouragement from our virtual coach, our brain gives us a small dopamine hit. But these tiny hits of dopamine are nothing compared to a bone fide flow state and these devices interrupt the flow process - pushing flow just out of reach. Because we are driven to seek pleasure and positive feedback and the electronics are unable to satiate the dopamine cravings, we can end up addicted to the cycle of checking and re-checking our devices, to no avail. Eventually, the only thing we are looking for when working out are the dopamine hits from our wearables and the actual activity becomes of little account. The natural feedback loops that creates flow states are blocked and we don’t even know what we’ve lost.
This is a serious problem for the brain. It’s also a problem for the body because physical reality isn’t taken into account by the wearable device. Fitbit doesn’t care if you’re walking on the beach and there is a pod of dolphins you need to stop and watch play. It’s only the STEPS that matter! Fitbit doesn’t care that you woke up this morning and for an unknown reason felt very tired and had a headache - it’s LEG DAY! You have to go to the gym. Fitbit doesn’t track how much time you spend inside lacking essential sunlight, or how shitty your relationships are (which deeply affects your health). Fitbit doesn’t actually give a crap. But you do. Your essential evolved-self knows how to take care of your body. Now that’s FEISTY, baby.
Our online addictions are amplified when we use our smartphones and smartwatches during our physical training and activities. Having fitness trackers tag along on our quest for fitness gives us a great excuse to “stay connected” and obsessively check our texts, emails and social media. Therefore, more dopamine triggers that do not correlate at all with the activity or workout. And more dopamine hits means more dopamine receptors which in turn means, you need to make more dopamine - feeding the addiction to your own brain chemicals. What’s worse is that high-seeking behavior for dopamine can lead to looking for more outside triggers (instead of internal feedback), like legit drugs. Opioid epidemic, anyone?
Awareness of what we are doing, where we are and how we feel is essential to, well, being human. Be smarter than your smart tech. “Your instincts are smarter than your smartwatch”, now that’s super-FEISTY.