Why Tracking Your Steps Might Make You Unhappier

Tracking your steps daily might seem like an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but research shows that while tracking might increase your walking, it may also decrease the pleasure you gain from each step.

Tracking Can Reduce Satisfaction

Professor Jordan Etkin of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business conducted experiments to evaluate how measuring output affects the enjoyment of an activity. In all three experiments, Etkin found that people who were focused on the measurement of their activity got less joy out of what they were doing. In a coloring test, participants who were told how many shapes they were coloring were less creative and reported a lower level of enjoyment than those participants who were allowed to color without being told how many shapes they’d filled in.

In a reading test, participants who were asked to read for enjoyment found the process more pleasant when the number of pages they had read was not tracked. Plus, the researchers discovered that tracking reduced the motivation to keep reading at a steady pace after the tracking period had ended.

Not surprisingly, these same principles also carried over to experiments about tracking steps. First, Etkin gave pedometers to some test participants and asked them to check their steps throughout the day. Other participants were given pedometers with the read-out display covered, so only the researchers would know how many steps they had walked. The people who could see their step counts took more steps, but reported less enjoyment of the steps they took.

Next, Etkin gave participants pedometers and instructed them to check the display only if they wanted to. 71 percent of people checked in on their step counts regularly. As in the previous test, the people who paid attention to the number of steps they were taking walked more, but also found walking less satisfying.

Etkin and her team concluded that, in general, when information such as the number of steps you’ve taken is readily available to you, you want to know it. It’s hard to ignore the temptation to keep your pulse on the numbers. However, the more you feed into that desire to know all the statistics, the less you’ll enjoy the activity that you’re tracking. Regular movement is important for a healthy lifestyle, but, unfortunately, an addiction to your tracker may rob you of the joy of fitness.

How to Use Your Tracker

Use tracking to give yourself an idea of your overall fitness picture. A few weeks of tracking your steps is enough provide a reasonable idea of how much you are moving each day. Set a goal for how many steps you want to take each day and use the tracker to make sure you are doing so. Work up to that amount, if necessary.

Then, once the habit is established, it’s okay to set the tracker to the side. Encourage yourself to move as much as you were with the tracker, but don’t rely on the tracker to tell you that you are actually doing so.

Every once in a while, pull the device back out for a few days to check in on your habits. If you find that you’re regularly falling short of your movement goals, use the tracker for a few weeks to help you get back on track.

A tracker is a tool, so use it as such. Don’t be a slave to its reports, but also, don’t be afraid to use it to help you keep fit. Short-term use can help you strike a balance between neglecting your movement needs and investing all of your focus on the numbers.