Fitness watches: Beautiful or terrifying?

woman using a smart watch
Is tracking every calorie burnt healthy, or taking it too far? Photo credit: Getty

I have a strong history in measuring my health through numbers. I've used my phone to count everything, from steps to calories.

'My Fitness Pal' has been a wayward friend, usually bookended by the thought "I really have to start watching what I eat" and ended by "screw it; life is too short to count the calories in grapes".

Even on your phone, it's a big part of life. But what about when it's strapped to your body?

Over the last month, I've been trying out the Samsung Galaxy smart watch, which the company kindly gave me. I got the one presumably aimed at 'ladies' - a very chic rose gold with a pale pink band.

Using it, I was struck with how numbers are now such a massive part of measuring our 'wellness' - but is this truly helpful, or is it the start of every Black Mirror episode ever?

In her article 'Quantifying the Body', Professor Deborah Luton refers to this as "mHealth' - measuring the body through mobile and wearable digital devices. She says collecting information on our everyday activities is "contributing to a new way of conceptualising one's body and one's health status".

"These 'numbers' have been vitally important in promoting the cause of the self-tracking movement," she writes. 

Self-tracking is right. Trying out the watch in Sydney meant a lot of time on foot. Every time we walked for more than a few minutes, an unexpected vibration on my wrist would remind me the exercise tracker had been triggered.

While at first, this kept making me jump like an electric shock, after a while it was nice to get these prompts, and to know the watch was keeping track of my steps and calories for me.  A long beach walk meant that every time we started slacking or getting a little tired, our watches would perkily tell us we were doing a "great job!"

"Keep up that pace!" it kept saying with an accompanying buzz, which was both encouraging and a little intimidating, but I liked the positive reinforcement. 

Less cool was when I was a sleepy traveller trying to have a snooze, and my whole wrist started violently vibrating. Turns out the watch tells you if you're too sedentary, pestering you to do 'torso twists' and the like. Don't think you can get away with it by waving in your arm in the air, either (trust, me I tried). Instead it counts them - up to five - as you get up and comply.

This has been genuinely useful at my desk when I come out of a work-wormhole and realise I haven't moved for five hours.

It's less helpful when you're trying to sleep. I'd highly recommend taking it off during nap time.

Similarly, while doing a downward dog session, I chose 'yoga' from the list of exercises available on my smart watch. It counted the time spent and the calories burnt stretching it out - which kind of defeats the purpose of doing yoga. I can see this being helpful for running or a spin class, but vibrations on your wrist to tell you you're doing great when you're trying to tune out the world isn't particularly conducive.

Over time, the numbers become addictive. Counting my steps saw me taking more trips to the kitchen to make cups of tea, a double win in that I was more hydrated than ever. In stressful moments I used the meditation function, which reminds you to breathe - I bet you didn't think you were forgetting to do that. But you probably are.

But as much as I like the adding up of my health wins over the day, I think sometimes it might be a good idea to remove your watch, be it Apple, Galaxy or one you've made yourself with a phone and duct tape. Go count some other things that measure your health. How much have you stepped outside and gotten some sun on your skin today? How many laughs have you shared with friends?

Maybe the numbers we should be counting aren't always the ones on a tactile little dial.

Having said that, the buzz and congratulations you get for reaching 10,000 steps is a real high that I would recommend.