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Fitness Trackers are Making You Weaker. Here’s What To Do About It.

It used to be that “fitness technology” simply meant heart rate chest straps and pedometers. Yet within the past few years, we’ve seen the advent of HR-enabled smart watches, thousands of apps that monitor everything from sleep to hydration, “coach in the ear” sunglasses and wireless headphones and accelerometer-enabled fitness trackers. Not to mention all the gear – shoes, paddles, tennis rackets and more – that capture hundreds of data points every second and synch with mobile and online apps in real time.

Some of this technology shows great promise, but it’s advancing faster than we can deal with. And we run the risk of forgetting all about quality in our pursuit of The Quantified Self, even as we struggle to interpret all the data that the devices in our ears, on our wrists, inside our gear and in our pockets is collecting around the clock.

What’s needed is a field manual that explains how to better use technology, how to understand its limitations and how to avoid its potential pitfalls. A blueprint that can also show when to disconnect from all the gadgets and gizmos and get back to just having fun outdoors – enjoying reality itself without trying to augment it or measure every single second.

That’s exactly what Brian Mackenzie, Phil White and I provide in our new book Unplugged. In addition to sharing what we’ve learned in the lab and in the field coaching athletes over the past 15 years, we also brought in the likes of Laird Hamilton, Kai Lenny, Tim Ferriss and Steven Kotler to share their insights.

Here are a few ways to unplug from your wearable and upgrade your fitness today:

1. Get Outdoors for 30 Minutes Tech-Free Daily Movement 

Studies show that just taking a brief walk in nature can reduce stress markers, blood pressure, and inflammation. This doesn’t only apply if you live by the ocean or in the mountains. If you’re in a city, just trading the treadmill for a trail through your local park will provide big benefits.

Steven Kotler (author of The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire) told us that being outdoors is the easiest way to get into a deep flow state that carries over into his writing and the rest of his day…but you can only fully access the novelty and complexity triggers for such a state if you’re fully engaged with your environment, which isn’t going to happen if you’re looking at your wrist to check your heart rate every 30 seconds. So try unplugging while you’re moving and if you must collect data with your phone or a wearable, review it afterward so you’re not distracted.

Also, try to rediscover the joy of untamed physical activity. Moving is meant to be fun – think about kids whooping and laughing on a playground. Sometimes fitness trackers to turn something that’s meant to be playful into just another chore. See what changes if you set such tools aside for a week or a month and put the focus back on play. 

2. Seek Out Adversity and Learn From It

In his book What Doesn’t Kill UsScott Carney does a great job explaining that we’ve become too comfortable and avoid difficulties as much as possible. But problems and unusual situations are great teachers and force us to adapt and grow.

We’re not saying you should never train indoors again, but you can try substituting that air-conditioned gym for a bike ride on a hot or cold day. Do an 18 or 24 hour fast once a month to get your body used to being more resilient when it’s not in a fed state. Find a new challenge – like an obstacle race or a local 5k and sign up with a buddy. Go out and try a new sport, not worrying whether you’ll look silly the first few times you do it. 

It doesn’t matter what you do: the key is simply to try something new and challenging.

3. Make Smarter Use of Your Fitness Trackers

When we interviewed Tim Ferriss, he told us that we should be using fitness technology to ask better questions and seek targeted solutions to specific problems. Just collecting gigabytes of data for its own sake is useless. The best quote he gave us on this was “Use the least technology necessary, not the most you can handle.”

One of the ways you can implement this is to use technology as a tool rather than a taskmaster. It can be useful to connect what you’re feeling with your physiology.

Say that you track your sleep: instead of just looking at your “sleep score” and letting this determine the quality of your sleep, see if it jives with what you’re feeling. If you get a score of 95 out of 100 but feel crappy or a 60 but feel great, then you know the monitor isn’t doing what it’s supposed to and maybe you shouldn’t be using it for that purpose. But if those scores do correspond with how well rested you feel, then great, keep tracking your sleep!

You can also use an app like Coach’s Eye to help you better identify movement errors. Then when you know what it looks like when your back starts rounding in a squat, go to the next step – how it feels. Next, try to start self-identifying and correcting the issue. This is when you’ve truly started mastering the movement.

Should We Shun Technology Altogether? 

It would be naïve to think that we can go back to a pre-technology age and crazy to suggest that we need to go all Luddite and start smashing all our fitness gadgets. We need to find a better way to use technology as another tool that can help us connect what we’re experiencing to what’s going on in our bodies, rather than a demanding task master to which we abdicate our decision making. Data collection shouldn’t be a magic bullet or cure-all, but rather something that enables us to ask better questions and solve specific issues, with a coach’s expert help if needed. That’s what we hope Unplugged enables you to do.

Now go unplug, get outdoors and have some fun. And when you do reconnect, try to use your tech more thoughtfully and purposefully.

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Unplugged is out now. Get your hardcover or Kindle copy here.

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Dr. Andy Galpin

Andy has a Masters degree in Human Movement Sciences and a PhD in Human Bioenergetics.

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