Stepping Down: Rethinking the Fitness Tracker

Wearable devices encourage 10,000 steps a day, but that's not a very dynamic understanding of health


The day after my hip surgery, I took a total of 48 steps from the couch, to the bathroom, and back.

Compare that to my 5,423,095 total lifetime steps on Fitbit over the last 628 days. That averages out to about 8,600 steps a day, a little shy of the recommended 10,000.

That first week after surgery, Fitbit emailed me what was meant to be a motivating weekly report full of downward-pointing, red-pixel arrows. I wasn't discouraged, but relieved that my weekly total was so low. I had managed to successfully rest and recuperate.

In the weeks that followed, I looked to my Fitbit to help manage my recovery. Everything about the Fitbit is engineered to encourage you to move more, but I wanted to move less— more slowly, more carefully. My goals no longer matched up with the activity tracker design defaults.

Fitbit activity before and after surgery. (Screenshot courtesy of Sara M. Watson)

The injury that sent me to surgery is becoming a more common problem: as we stop listening to our bodies and pushing, further and faster. It’s called Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI), and it's a condition in which bone irregularities rub the femur against the hip socket, which leads to tears in the labrum and cartilage in the joint.

My doctor estimated that if he took people off the street, 50 percent of them would have this impingement bone structure. But they may not have pain or injury because they weren't doing extreme exercise. Historically, hockey players suffered from these kinds of tears with their extreme, quick lateral moves; now dancers, runners, and yogis like Lady Gaga are tearing their labra, too. We're forcing our hips into positions like pigeon pose that don't play well with the underlying architecture of our bodies.

Lady Gaga’s tear was reportedly the size of a quarter. Thankfully mine was much smaller, requiring an hour-and-a-half long arthroscopic surgery conducted through three small holes in my thigh. The surgeon reattached my labrum with two dissolvable laces, and then shaved down the impinging bones on both the femur and the socket.

To prepare for surgery, I had to take everything off: nail polish removed, all jewelry left at home, including my wedding rings and a helix earring that required pliers to take out. Still, I was so in the habit of wearing my Fitbit that even on the day of surgery I clipped it to my sports bra.

After the surgery, I wasn't sure why I kept it on at first. I was instructed to get lots of rest that first week, so the activity tracker should have lost its utility. But I had made Fitbit so much a part of my routine over the last year, so much an extension of my awareness of distance, of quantified movement through space, that I was now looking to it as a tool for recovery.


Some self-trackers stop tracking after they've solved a problem or introduced a new habit. I'm the type of tracker who sticks with tracking things long after they've taught me something useful. Once it becomes a part of my routine I stay with it. I've had my Fitbit for more than a year, I haven't ever lost it, and I only dropped it in the toilet once.

As part of my research on the quantified self community, I logged all my runs and yoga sessions, diet, sleep, and even gratitude. Ironically, the things I was doing to maintain my fitness and health ended up being the things that wore down my hip and pushed my body beyond its limits.

I have a record of all the ways I wore away at my soft tissue, in those 18 hours and 32 minutes of yoga I did in the month leading up to my wedding, in those averaged 8-minute-mile jogs that started out with characteristically inconsistent 7:31-minute first mile splits. I see those record-breaking days wandering Paris and Venice. I see where I tried and failed to train for a half-marathon. I see where I injured myself, stopped running, and started physical therapy. These moments are marked by step counts and workouts, but the narrative that explains the numbers is overlayed like a personal journal.

Looking back at my running logs, Strava reminds me, "Push yourself harder in 2014." That's the opposite of what I need right now. But that's the underlying logic guiding the design of these fitness tracking systems.

Why 10,000 "magical" steps? Why 30 minutes a day of vigorous activity? Why 64 fluid ounces of water? These numbers come preset in most activity trackers and apps, and are based on normative levels of fitness. They are marks to fit the curve for fitness.

Fitbit mobile (Screenshot courtesy of Sara M. Watson)

My Fitbit emails highlight my "Best Day." Eventually those days will become markers of progress. But for the three weeks I'm on crutches, they are reminders that no matter which buses and Uber rides I take to work and physical therapy appointments, I'm still walking too much.

I changed my daily goal to 4,000 steps. I get an iPhone alert that I've "Nailed it!" when I reach that threshold. For most people that's a badge of achievement for the day. I use it as a reminder that I need to slow down and take it easy.

It's not as easy as it should be to change your goals on Fitbit. And the reports aren't designed to adapt as your goals change over time. My goal was 10,000 steps last month, but you can't see that contextual change in the three month report now. There is only today's goal. Glowing green shows me all the days I met and exceeded my new goal. My recovery time looks sad, grey, and unaccomplished.

The recently announced Apple Watch looks compelling for all its fitness features. If I got one I might stop using the Fitbit. But now I wonder about the defaults: "globally recommended 30 minutes" of brisk activity; minutes of standing per 12 hours; stairs in a day: all to complete the glowing circle (how very cybernetic of them). Those metrics might be good for average global health, but how adaptable are they to meet individual needs? Apple has given so much attention to personalizing the external aesthetics of the Watch, but how much will these algorithmic personal trainers adapt to our needs as they change over time?

You could argue that fitness trackers are simply not suited to the recovery process. But sensing space in terms of step counts has become so much a part of my embodied experience, I don't want to stop.

Thankfully, my penchant for self-tracking lends itself to my physical therapy exercises. What my Fitbit couldn’t do for me, I built for myself in the form of a spreadsheet. Each week I add more elements to my protocol. In the process, I've realized that reminding myself to do the exercises at all is more important than the counting itself. So instead of adding up reps, I'm dropping in emojis, like little gold stars for completing my daily recovery chores.

Screenshot courtesy of Sara M. Watson

For me, this was a year of wearable technology. I don't mean headlines about wearable sensors and smart watches. This was the year I became a cyborg. Feminist technology theorist Donna Haraway defined a cyborg as a binary defying, intimate coupling between human and machine. I got glasses because my eyes were over-converging. I changed my brain chemistry. I'm walking around with a copper wire in my uterus. Until they dissolve, there are two laces keeping my hip together. I embraced this transition and wrote on my body to mark this year with a tattoo, my own "biological inscription." These technologies are not just extensions of my thinking and working like computers or smartphones, they mediate my entire embodied experience.

I've accepted technology as a part of my body, but I don't have to accept the defaults of these generally male-designed, able-bodied statistical average counting machines. Haraway's cyborg changes the system, and makes it work for her needs, inserts herself into the circuit. I turned a step count achievement alert into a warning sign.

But it's not just technology that's part of my body. It's what writer and designer Craig Mod calls the "data mind" and what philosopher Luciano Floridi means by updating cyborg with "inforg." Thinking about my body in terms of data has made me more kind to myself. I know what I can do, what I'm capable of, and how that changes with time, practice, and patience. I'm entering into a new normal.

My definition of fitness is changing over time as my body changes over time. I used to think running and doing yoga at least a couple times a week was what made me feel fit. Today, my metric is how long I lay on my stomach to stretch my mending hip. Next week, it will be how long I can pedal on a recumbent bike without resistance. In the future, it will be the physical therapy that preemptively strengthens my loose joints to support a child. And long after that, it will how much time I can spend in the vegetable garden before I get tired.

It's not always going to be 10,000 steps a day, 30 minutes of brisk activity. I don't have to accept Apple’s, Fitbit's, or anyone else's technocratic, prescriptive vision for global health. These best-fit statistics are no longer my numbers.

Fitness is dynamic. I want my fitness technology to be dynamic, too.