Counting Steps: Are You Walking More, But Enjoying It Less?

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Using a fitness tracker or smartwatch to count your steps every day may lead you to boost your activity levels, but you may find that you enjoy your activity less than you would if you weren't tracking yourself, new research suggests.

It turns out that all that tracking can turn pleasurable hobbies like walking into chores, which could make people stop doing those once-enjoyable tasks when they feel they're off the clock, the researchers said.

"In general, tracking activity can increase how much people do," Jordan Etkin, a marketing professor at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, said in a statement. However, "enjoyable activities can became almost like a job," when people focus on the outcomes of things that used to be fun. [Best Fitness Tracker Bands]

Activity tracking

The quantified self movement has exploded into a mainstream phenomenon in recent years. From counting every step taken to adding up the calories and fat in that handful of almonds eaten after breakfast, people are recording more and more data from their daily lives.

Some studies suggest that all this tracking may make us healthier, at least in the short-term. For example, one study found that over a four-month period, fitness trackers increased the activity levels of older women, according to the findings published in June 2015 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

However, the longer-term effects of tracking many aspects of everyday life are less clear. To get a better picture of that, Etkin set up a number of experiments in which participants were asked to read, color in shapes or walk.

All work and no play

In the walking experiments, Etkin asked 95 students to record their thoughts as they walked over the course of a day. Some of these students were also given a pedometer, and was asked to regularly check the number of steps they took.

The trackers logged more steps than those who didn't have pedometers, but said they enjoyed their jaunts less.

In a follow-up experiment, another 100 students were given the option to have pedometers, and were told they should check them only if they wanted to. About 71 percent regularly checked their step counts. Like the other cohort, the step-counters reported longer walking distances but took less pleasure in their activity. The students reported the experiment had felt like work, and that they felt less happy and satisfied at the day's end than those who didn't check their step counts.

"We're curious creatures, and tracking information is very seductive, even for enjoyable activities," Etkin said. "Simply making it available made them want to look at it, but the very people who self-select into measurement are the ones who are hurt by it."

Pleasure reading

In another experiment, Etkin asked 310 people to read a passage of text for 8 minutes. They all read the same passage, but one group was told the passage was fun and entertaining, whereas another was told the text was for informational or educational purposes. A third group was given no additional passage. For each of these groups, some of the participants were told at various points during the reading how many pages they'd read so far.

The researchers found that those who could see their page counts reported finding less pleasure in the task than those who could not. Interestingly, this discrepancy only held for those who read the "fun" passage — and not those who started out viewing the task as work.

Finally, in a follow-up experiment, 236 participants were told to read for an additional 2 minutes, after their 8 minutes was up. Those whose page counts had been logged read less than those who did not track their progress.

Obviously, those results don't directly apply to physical fitness, and the results are based on a short-term experiment. But they do hint that tracking anything — whether it's reading or walking — can make people less inclined to do it in the future, Etkin said.

"This doesn't mean we should stop measuring our daily activity," she said, "but we need to balance that increased productivity against our underlying enjoyment. For activities people do for fun, it may be better not to know."

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.