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Why do some people seem to be obsessed with fitness trackers?


Almost 1 in 3 Americans uses a wearable device to track their fitness, according to the National Institutes of Health. And as people shop for last-minute holiday gifts, fitness trackers are a popular choice for nearly all ages. But do they actually work? And why do some people seem so obsessed with keeping tabs on everything from their sleep to how many steps they get a day? Pamela Rutledge is a professor of media psychology at the Fielding Graduate University, and she's also a health fitness tracker user. And she joins me now to talk about all this. Hi, Pamela.

PAMELA RUTLEDGE: Hello. How are you?

FADEL: I'm doing well. So I think I want to start with what's going on in people's brains when they use these trackers.

RUTLEDGE: So a fitness tracker is just another form of getting information about ourselves that we find intriguing and that we can, you know, maybe use to make decisions.

FADEL: So it's about gathering more information about yourself.

RUTLEDGE: Yes. I think that most people who are fitness tracker devotees are using it for self-awareness. They're using it to understand what they're doing and make judgments about how they might change their behavior or what their goals should be.

FADEL: Are there any drawbacks to these fitness trackers?

RUTLEDGE: Keeping track of things for behavior change are long-standing practices. We just used to have to use a pencil and paper. For the most part, people respond very positively in terms of them being a motivational tool. It's really important, just as these are for self-knowledge, to know yourself a little bit, because it's very easy for some people to get preoccupied with the quantitative goal rather than the qualitative goal of wellness or fitness. So how many steps is not as important as how you feel.

FADEL: Do they make a difference when it comes to creating healthier habits in people's lives?

RUTLEDGE: Absolutely. Keeping track of things is a very important form of feedback because people tend to underestimate how much they ate and overestimate how active they've been, and all of those kinds of things that - where we make judgments that make us feel good, that are sort of - I hate to sound like a psychologist, but ego consonant, right? In other words, they sort of reinforce our ego. Reality, however, is important, and so keeping track allows you to say, oh, gosh, I thought I walked, you know, a mile, but it was really only a half a mile. However you're thinking about it, it changes your level of awareness.

FADEL: Yeah, the accountability of it all. Now, you have a fitness tracker. How has that sort of shaped things for you?

RUTLEDGE: I'm a data freak, so let's be fair here. And so I have an Apple Watch. I have an Oura ring. I keep track of my workouts on the Peloton bike.

FADEL: Yeah.

RUTLEDGE: But in general, I find that it's very helpful to kind of bring me back to my goals because it's very easy - gosh, especially this time of year. But it helps you to sort of touch back in with yourself. OK, so I'm keeping track of this. I can, you know, fall off the wagon. But in general, I have the confidence of knowing that I am on this path. So I think that they can be very important, and you can motivate yourself by different measures within any kind of tracker. I don't know what you personally measure.

FADEL: Well, I only have my phone actually. I'm thinking, like, maybe I should have these Apple Watches. And then I have a tracker for my food, but on my phone where I write it down.


FADEL: But then, you know, some days I'm like, you know, I'm not going to write it down, and then it didn't happen, and then it's fine. I can eat the whole box of cookies.


FADEL: Pamela Rutledge is a psychologist who writes for Positively Media, a blog on Psychology Today. Thanks so much, Pamela, and happy holidays.

RUTLEDGE: My pleasure, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.