My eyes lit up. There it was, the gadget I’d been lusting after for months and dropping hints about for weeks in the run up to Christmas. At last a Fitbit of my own.
It wasn’t that I needed an exercise tracker to get fit. As a spindly schoolboy I’d become obsessed with fitness and honing my physique from an early age.
I cycled every day, ran several times a week, enjoyed a hearty swim, and always took the stairs, not the lift.
But I yearned to know how I was doing.
My eyes lit up. There it was, the gadget I’d been lusting after for months and dropping hints about for weeks in the run up to Christmas. At last a Fitbit of my own. Stock image
As an economist and journalist, I craved data — lots of lovely numbers, showing change over time and interesting, useful comparisons. And my new Fitbit was perfect.
It would log my steps — and my progress towards the daunting but enticing goal of 10,000 a day. It could tell me if I was really running farther and faster, or whether I was resting on my laurels.
All these exciting figures would be delivered direct to my computer, so after sweaty workouts I could look forward to hours of enjoyable number-crunching — and bragging to my family.
Should I fall short, then I would have a fact-based motivational spur to do better.
At the back of my mind was another thought — the Fitbit would act as a check on my overall health. If something was amiss — heart and respiratory rates etc — I would get an early digital warning.
Why wait for my annual medical when I could have a constant watchdog on my pulse and other vital signs?
All this was five years ago, long before claims that ever more sophisticated Fitbits, Apple watches and other trackers and health apps that monitor our every breath and muscle twitch are in danger of swamping the NHS.
At the back of my mind was another thought — the Fitbit would act as a check on my overall health
A report by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, published this week, warns of the added strain on the health service from the ‘worried well’ who flock to see their GPs, armed with often erroneous data from their trackers, when in reality there is nothing wrong with them.
But at the time I was so enamoured of my Fitbit Flex — a sleek black wristbrand — that I believed the NHS should actually prescribe or subsidise them. What better way of getting obese, indolent or depressed patients into a healthier state of mind and body?
I think rather differently now. In my experience, any benefit that such fitness gizmos or apps provide for your physical health is outweighed by the threat they pose to your sanity.
For that little wristband took over my life and it was a tyrannical master. I began to wear it to bed.
After all, my night-time trip to the loo involved a few steps and it would be a pity to waste them. I even fretted that its battery would run down and that while I was charging it, I might take a few steps that it wouldn’t record.
You see, the arbitrary 10,000 steps assumed a disproportionate importance. I neglected my weekly swims — one of the best forms of exercise — because my rather primitive Fitbit wasn’t waterproof. Laps of the pool suddenly seemed pointless if I wasn’t logging them.
And though I weigh just 12st — a healthy weight for my 6ft 2in — I became obsessed with calorie counting. The Fitbit told me how much I was burning up with exercise. But what was I consuming?
But at the time I was so enamoured of my Fitbit Flex — a sleek black wristbrand — that I believed the NHS should actually prescribe or subsidise them. Stock image
I began casting a puritanical eagle eye over restaurant menus, cooked boring, fibre-heavy meals at home, and tut-tutted when my family gorged themselves on carbs, fat and protein.
We don’t have scales in our house so when we visited friends I would sneak to the bathroom, whip off my clothes and weigh myself. At the time, I didn’t consider it odd.
My hunger for data mushroomed. I bought another device for my bike, which not only recorded my trips precisely, but also the level of air pollution.
I changed my routes across London and took longer but cleaner journeys through the parks. I became obsessed with the quantity and quality of my sleep.
The Fitbit data on sleep was too limited, so I found a phone app that claimed to plot my sleep cycles, timing my morning alarm to coincide with the time when my slumber was at its lightest.
It also recorded any noises in the night, sparking acrimonious marital discord as my wife and I blamed each other for the extraordinary snoring in our bedroom.
I neglected my weekly swims — one of the best forms of exercise — because my rather primitive Fitbit wasn’t waterproof. Stock image
I then got a device to correct my posture, bowed from years spent hunched over computers.
A postage-stamp gadget attached to my shirt with a magnet, it buzzed if I slouched, and produced even more data.
Next up was a phone app called Runkeeper. It tracked, sliced and diced all the data around my daily jog, awarding me yet more phoney prizes for speed and distance.
Yet another app was 6 Pack Promise, which gave me a ruthless regime of daily exercises to improve my ‘core’ muscles. Aches and pains abounded. But I joyfully ticked off the levels of progress: any minor improvement in my physique was secondary.
As my enthusiasm mounted, I became steadily more aware of the price I and others were paying.
I had never been fitter, or better informed about my physical prowess but the rest of my life was suffering.
The first rule of Fitbit Club is that you must talk about it relentlessly — but my family and friends started changing the subject when anything remotely connected to health or fitness loomed.
The second rule of Fitbit Club is that you seek out other members in order to obey the first rule. So at parties, I would check people’s wrists for the telltale gadget. A wonderful icebreaker —but bragging matches with fellow-fanatics were a poor substitute for normal conversation
Slowly the truth began to hit me. Data about physical exercise was inherently quite boring. And not only to other people. It was fast becoming boring to me.
I was missing the real point of exercise. It’s not just about getting fit. No metrics can substitute for the feeling itself — the rush of endorphins that comes with hard, physical endeavour.
I also began to realise the Fitbit was measuring the wrong things. Ten thousand steps a day is much less good for you than short bursts of really intense exercise.
Running up all 13 storeys of the office block where I worked was a far more enjoyable, effective and time-efficient routine than trudging to the shops on a pointless errand, just to hit an artificial target.
I changed my routes across London and took longer but cleaner journeys through the parks. I became obsessed with the quantity and quality of my sleep. Stock image
Moreover, the language of Fitbit began to offend me — ‘Crush your goals’ was unpleasantly harsh and confrontational. And the whole business of ‘awards’ and ‘trophies’ that are part of the tracker and app system seemed demeaning and worthless.
My parents taught me if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing: there is no need to pat yourself on the back, let alone brag about it.
Pride and envy are among the Seven Deadly Sins after all, and my Fitbit encouraged both.
I also began to worry about my privacy. As one of the leading foreign critics of the Russian regime, I had enough worries about my personal safety already.
Why bother to leave my phone at home for security reasons, when I was wearing in effect a tracking beacon that recorded my whereabouts, my daily routines and habits and highly personal physiological data — and uploaded them goodness knows where? So I binned my Fitbit, and I junked the other apps and gadgets, too.
Now a clock and a map give me a good idea of how far and fast I run. I don’t listen to anything except my breathing and concentrate on the sights and sounds around me — particularly the bird life.
And I have turned to open-water swimming. The only data I need there is chill of the water — 38f (3c) this week. That’s exciting enough.
I don’t regret my Fitbit phase — it taught me a life-changing lesson. Our time on earth is to be lived — not measured.