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Fitness trackers: Why urban India is obsessed

Studies doubt the accuracy of their data. Experts say users show addictive behaviour. Yet, our fixation with fitness tech is only getting started

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Feb 12, 2016 14:38 IST
Sarit Ray and Sneha Mahale
We no longer just want to get fit. We want to measure every step we take to do it. Here’s why.
We no longer just want to get fit. We want to measure every step we take to do it. Here’s why.

Running, or walking, over long distances is as old as humans themselves. We were never the fastest animals around. Almost every four-legged animal can outsprint us. But when it comes to covering distance, we’re like the proverbial turtle: we keep going. In the evolutionary race, ancient humans picked up the skill of endurance running (sweat, the natural enemy on a Virar local on a sultry day, uniquely helps humans cool down while running). We hunted by chasing prey for so long, they would tire out. A 2007 study in the journal Sports Medicine, suggests that, on a hot day, we could outrun a horse in a 42km marathon.It is natural, then, for a thinking species to want to measure and quantify one of its most unique skills. Modern-day fitness trackers could be more Darwinian than you imagined.

So, what’s the problem?

Until recently, we were measuring physical achievements arbitrarily. Three rounds of Shivaji Park, 30 squats, 20 lunges. Even when you climbed on to the treadmill, which gave you the distance covered, speed and heart rate, it was for 20 minutes in a day. You’d take with you the obvious health benefits, and the bragging rights of having run five minutes longer than your friend. But the rest of the day was just work as usual.

Modern fitness trackers — smartphone-based or wearable — are relentless. You’re encouraged to always keep them on, measuring every step you take (or, attempting to, at least). And, with more gadgets comes greater obsession. Cited in a recent article on Allure.com, On World, a business research firm, predicts a 900 per cent rise in the download of fitness apps in the next five years. And like the good, modern consumer market it now is, India is a big contributor. Accenture’s Digital Consumer Tech Survey, conducted in six countries in 2014, found Indians the likeliest to purchase apps or a device to monitor health (81 per cent) and fitness (80 per cent). Surprised? “The demand in India is coming from both metros and non-metros — from the youth as well as health-conscious senior citizens,” says Shripal Gandhi, founder and CEO, Swipe Technologies.

10,000 steps to glory

The urban health revolution in India gained ground over the last decade or so. We run marathons, go to CrossFit class, and can rattle off the benefits of quinoa and gluten-free bread on cue. Alongside, the parallel, all-consuming trend has been the rise and penetration of smartphones and the internet. It was only a matter of time before the two met. Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with. So much so that steps on your FitBit tracker, or distance cycled on Strava or Endomondo, are the new Instagram vacation photos: they carry as much, if not greater, social media currency.

Anusha Lalwani (29), an accessory designer from Bandra, admits that she gets “annoyed” if she forgets her FitBit at home, or if she forgets to charge it. “There is a joke — if it isn’t recorded on FitBit, then the steps don’t count,” she says. One of Lalwani’s biggest motivations is the yardstick for most fitness devices — 10,000 steps. “I’m happy I can push myself to hit 10,000 every day. FitBit puts you on a ‘streak’ and awards ‘badges’ for reaching goals. These are very motivating. Knowing that falling a thousand steps short on a day will break my streak is enough to make me walk after dinner,” she says.

Most popular fitness apps

Compiled by: Sneha Mahale

Is it really 10,000?

Even as the dependence on fitness apps and devices grows, recent studies have taken some of the sheen off their professed benefits. A January 2016 study by Lancaster University, UK, says there is “no empirical evidence” to back up claims that devices monitoring movement and heart rate lead to long-term well-being. Another by the University of Toronto, Canada, warns that fitness tracking apps have an “unacceptable error percentage when compared to the pedometer” (see box: Pedometer vs Accelerometer). It found that the app Runtastic over-reported steps by 10 per cent, Accupedo under-reported by 25 per cent, and Moves under-reported by 30 per cent. Some devices, such as the YuFit tracker, and the app Google Fit, have even been known to record slow drives as cycling distances.

In the US, FitBit is facing a lawsuit over the allegation that its devices “cannot consistently and accurately record wearers’ heart rates”. FitBit stands by its technology, but with the disclaimer that its products are not intended to be scientific or medical devices.

Reports of inaccuracy, however, do not seem to faze everyone. Girish Mallya (40), a running expert at Puma India, says he’s aware that “distances and calorie counts can be inaccurate at times”. But he reckons it’s still a good way for people to start off. Siddhartha Jain, a 29-year-old entrepreneur and a FitBit user, also feels that the device has “helped put fitness first”, and, until there’s a better way to track fitness, he won’t give his up.

Future of fitness

With the compulsive need to track data, fitness tracking will only become more mainstream. Oral Roberts University, in Oklahoma, USA, has made it mandatory for new students to wear trackers. Some organisations — such as the NBA (National Basketball Association; including their India offices) — give its employees fitness trackers, and celebrate the fittest ones. Most of us know people who are inseparable from their trackers, checking it every few minutes.

Neeta V Shetty, a Wadala-based psychotherapist and a user of FitBit herself, says the obsession could eventually manifest itself like a digital addiction: “Over time, you form a relationship with your device, and depend on it for validation. If you don’t hit a certain number, you feel guilty or depressed.” Dr Mudit Khanna, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Wockhardt Hospitals, says, “The gadgets by themselves are not harmful, so long as you don’t overdo fitness activities.”

But we’re only in the initial phase of fitness tracking. Devices of the future are bound to be more compelling. Already, Mio Global, known for its heart rate monitoring technology, is ditching steps for something more complex — a Personal Activity Intelligence (PAI) score that factors in age, gender, and resting and maximum heart rates. A start-up called Electrozyme is working on wearable strips that will analyse chemical information from sweat. Chances are, in a few years, the current batch of fitness devices will begin to look like the Nokia 3310.

But this is also a future where robots will fetch you water, and cars will drive themselves. Perhaps the only motivation, then, to run, cycle or walk at all, must come with an obsession to do so with robotic precision.

Studies doubt the accuracy of their data. Yet, our fixation with fitness tech is only getting started.

Trial run: A user’s guide to finding the best apps for yourself

“I landed up buying a cycle a little over a year ago, and as data obsessed as I am, I wanted to log my bike rides. I’ve always had the Google Fit app on my phone, which keeps track of the distance I covered (mostly walking), but I wanted a cycling-specific app. Also, Google Fit, at times, does not track activities precisely. If you are driving really slow, the activity is tracked as a bike ride. I did a lot of research and tried out a bunch of apps, and finally zeroed in on Strava for my bike rides, along with a Garmin HRM (Heart Rate Monitor). The Strava app is quite accurate, provided your phone has a good GPS chip. The Garmin HRM is highly accurate too. This combination gives me incisive data about my rides.

It’s nice to see the graphs and data after my rides/hikes. The segment feature in Strava is great as it shows you where you are placed with regards to other riders, and also how you perform over multiple rides of the same segment. This data helps me set goals and targets for myself. For instance, I try to beat my best time over a given segment, or follow a route that I rode before and try to complete it in less time.”

—Lovell D’Souza, freelance photographer