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Should You Quantify Your Exercise?

Find out about the pros and cons of counting steps and quantifying exercise, and learn what the research says about whether you really should do self-quantification of activity.

By
Ben Greenfield
4-minute read
Episode #282

Unless you completely eschew technology or live under a rock in the middle of the woods, you are no doubt familiar with the trendy new obsession with “self-quantification” and quantified self movement: the use of sleep trackers like the Beddit, fancy pedometers and calorie-tracking devices like the Apple Watch, the Fitbit, and the Jawbone, and even devices like the Lumo, which quantifies and adjusts your posture, Spiro, which quantifies your breathing, and NatureBeat, which quantifies your cardiovascular and nervous system health. An entire floor of this year’s Consumer Electronics Summit (CES), the world’s most popular event devoted to breakthrough new technologies, was devoted to these type of wearables, and many people find themselves tied to and studying these type of devices 24-7 (a perfect example is “The Man Who Has Single-Handedly Tested Nearly Every Self-Quantification Device On The Face Of The Planet.”)

I’ve even been caught up myself with this craze, and, as I report in “Could This New Ring Be The Final Frontier In Self Quantification, Biohacking, Sleep Tracking, HRV, Respiration & More?” I’ve been relying on a ring with a built-computer (called an “Oura”) to track and measure a host of parameters, including sleep, heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), activity, body temperature, movement, respiration, and more.

But is this seeming obsession with self-quantification actually healthy? Should you quantify metrics such as exercise and sleep, or are there proven drawbacks? In this article, you’re going to discover the latest research on self-quantification, and get a few quick and dirty tips to make the right decision when it comes to quantification.

The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification

The Journal of Consumer Research recently reported in the article “The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification” on the results of six different experiments that looked into devices that measure how much of different activities people do (walking, and also even non-exercise activities such as reading more).

For example, in one experiment, researchers had 105 students color in shapes for a few minutes and then rate how much they enjoyed it. Those who got numerical feedback on their coloring ("You have colored one shape”) did indeed color more shapes, but reported that they enjoyed it less.

In two other experiments, researchers gave 100 people pedometers (step measuring devices) to wear through the day. Just like the colorers, the people wearing the pedometers walked more than the people without pedometers, but also reported enjoying their physical activity less, even when they didn’t have access to the device’s feedback and metrics. So it seems the mere act of wearing a device during exercise may take some of the enjoyment out of it. And in another two experiments, 300 students reading for a brief period of time while having their reading metrics recorded did, as you’d probably guess, read more than a control group who wasn’t having their reading measured, but the measured group enjoyed the reading less, especially when they could see how many pages they had processed (ahem: Kindle, anyone?)

The article in the Journal of Consumer Research hypothesizes that this phenomenon occurs because measuring an activity can undermine intrinsic motivation to complete the activity. By drawing attention to the output rather than the process, constant measurement and quantification can make enjoyable activities feel more like work, thus reducing their enjoyment. The consequence of this can be decreased continued engagement in the activity and decreased subjective well-being.

So in summary: measuring something like exercise may make you exercise more, but enjoy the exercise less.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.