You finish your run, glance down at your watch and see that is has been approximately 35 minutes since you began. You know the area you ran through so you estimate that you ran around four miles. Quickly doing the math, you figure you ran between eight and nine minute miles. Ten years ago, this would have been the end of the quantification of your workout. Nowadays, the entire game has changed. When you finish a run in 2017, you can choose from upwards of 1,000 different apps on the Apple application store and see your speed, heart rate, average pace, the distance and route, altitude changes, calories burned, and even the changes in your gait over the course of the run. Then, you can share this information to a network that connects you to all of your other runner friends and get feedback on this specific workout. Then, you can integrate that information into various charts that compile the data from all of your previous runs and see how you have improved. This type of feedback has become the norm for runners, bikers, hikers, and even avid gym- goers.
Usage of Fitness Apps
Clearly, workouts have changed with the phenomenon of self-quantifying workout apps. But have they changed for the better? The creators and users of these apps seem to think so. The typical argument in favor of these apps is that they motivate the user by showing them their progress and creating a social network of others who participate in their chosen sport. The feedback feature on these apps essentially recreates the cheering crowds that line the finish line of a race, but at the end of every single run. Knowing one’s own statistics can also clearly highlight the way towards improvement. Perhaps long distance is one runner’s forte, but when hills are introduced he or she suddenly lags. Or maybe the runner’s gait becomes heavier and more prone to knee-injury when running on trails instead of concrete. In these ways, apps can be a motivator, a coach and a doctor in your pocket.
Results vs Enjoyment
However, there is a drawback to these apps. When one is so focused on the quantification of a workout, it might draw away from the qualification- or the actual enjoyment. Some studies have shown that measuring and rewarding activities can make the enjoyment of the actual activity decline. One researcher puts it like this: “‘The classic example: If you have kids—kids like to color, they’re coloring—if you give them an award for coloring, that makes them enjoy coloring less and makes them want to color less in the future.” (Etkin, The Atlantic). In other words, the enjoyment starts to focus on the reward, and not on the inherent enjoyment from the activity. In the world of exercise apps, the reward can either come from the social validation from friends on the app, or from a slight change or improvement in your stats. In this way, an activity that used to be self-rewarding, becomes externally rewarded.
Benefits depend on user
Like so many modern tools and toys, it seems that the benefit of workout apps is wholly dependent on the user. If one uses them as an added tool, they can prevent injury, inspire improvement, and found communities of like-minded people. However, they are just that. An added tool, not integral to the activity or the enjoyment, and secondary to the actual reason so many people participate in exercise- because they love it. After all, there isn’t a graph or chart that can mimic the feeling of a runner’s high or the burst of pride after a workout that just feels good, no matter what the stats say.