I bought a fitness-tracking device last week. I’d resisted buying one for years; I’m relatively healthy, don’t like carrying extra things, and felt this branch of the “quantified self” movement had taken navel-gazing a bit too literally. Still, I wanted to understand these tiny chunks of metal and plastic. Why are they so popular? What new data could I play with? So I caved.
I’m using a Fitbit One, but the brand doesn’t matter much. It’s small enough (about the length of my thumb, and half as thick) to drop in my left pants-pocket and forget about for the rest of the day. Except that I don’t forget. Dozens of times a day, I reach into that pocket, lift out the shiny pebble, and tap its only button to see how many steps I’ve taken since midnight.
The tracker also measures the number of calories I’ve burned, miles I’ve covered, floors I’ve ascended. But I rarely tap-tap-tap to see those figures. I’m singularly obsessed with the step count: I’m converting sitting meetings into walking meetings, dancing more at parties, and taking the long way home. Just to make the damn thing count.
Steps are such elegant units. More than anything else these trackers track, steps are human. Before we measured miles, calories, or floors — before there even were floors — we measured steps. They balance the personal with the universal; no step is exactly the same length, but they’re all roughly comparable. They’re easy to feel, to visualize. And they’re are easy to convert between the metric, imperial, and United States customary systems because they require no conversion at all.
I worry, though, that my step obsession will crowd out other activity. Steps are all lower-body. Pushups don’t count. Crunches don’t count. Bike-riding and basketball-playing might look something like steps to my Fitbit, but the device doesn’t capture their fullness. Two weeks ago, before I knew how susceptible I was to pedometerized influence, I would have laughed away this suggestion. Not so much anymore.