Yesterday, I just finished a run and walked slowly upstairs. I hadn’t looked closely at the results recorded by my Apple Watch, but I knew it had screwed up again this time from the illogical progress cues it had been giving me for the past hour.
A little background: For some reasons that have become history, it wasn’t convenient to go running in the open field much of last year; I had to take the nearest thing I could find and run laps around the outer edge of the small parking lot downstairs for more than two hundred meters. It was a bit confusing, but I got used to it after a few times.
But the Apple Watch can’t get used to it. Its satellite positioning ability is mediocre, plus the trees and houses in the residential area blocked the signal, often when I run this trail there is a serious drift, the accuracy of the record results can be imagined. As expected, it only recorded two-thirds of the actual distance this time, and was adamant that I was lapping and passing through walls for the four miles that disappeared. This is the third time in two weeks that the same problem has occurred.
It might seem a little petty to abandon a product that is actually quite mature overall just because it doesn’t record properly a few times. But in reality, I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my Apple Watch for quite some time now, and was just waiting for an opportunity to convince myself.
I’ve probably been a loyal Apple Watch user since the first generation in 2016, and I’ve been using it for generations until Series 8, but in the last few years, I’ve come to feel that the Apple Watch’s health logging and tracking model has done me more harm than good, limiting and hindering than enhancing.
So switching from the Apple Watch wasn’t a quest for a better replacement – at least, not for the Garmin. Rather, my goal is to push myself to let go of my attachment to the “health narrative” represented by the Apple Watch by switching to a completely incompatible system, and to make health-related plans and decisions more freely and autonomously.
Questioning the health design of the Apple Watch may raise some objections. After all, it’s a design set that has proven popular in the marketplace. In the early days of the Apple Watch line, it was Apple’s timely shift from a focus on “fashion” to a more popular focus on “exercise and health” that set it on the right course for success.
The design of the Apple Watch does set a benchmark, too. It sets three daily goals for energy consumption, activity time and standing, which are visually presented as the iconic red, green and blue concentric circles. To motivate users to achieve their goals, Apple Watch would send personalized prompts throughout the day based on completion; it also introduced a series of gamification elements, especially a set of exquisitely designed badges that rewarded users for continuous clocking and record refreshing behaviors. These designs have been frequently imitated and borrowed by later generations to this day.
For a year or two after I started wearing Apple Watch, the system did serve as a motivator and guide. I was at a point in my life where I was developing habits and building my fitness, and having a system that was easy to understand and aesthetically pleasing was not a bad thing at all.
But as the years went by, the downsides began to take over. Before I gave up my Apple Watch, I had accumulated almost 1,800 days of continuous use, and that was only because of a one-day hiatus at the end of 2017. In other words, for more than five years, I had burned at least 400 calories through exercise every day except one, completed 30 minutes of “brisk walking” or more, and stood up for at least one minute for 12 hours.
Sound like an exemplary user? Yes, but that’s the problem. Apple Watch encourages you to be an “obedient” user, giving the most positive feedback on your regular activity patterns. But “obedient” doesn’t equal appropriate or healthy. Being overly familiar with the Apple Watch’s “temperament,” I can pretty accurately estimate how many circles I’ve filled and what badges I’ve earned for various activities. This indirectly creates a comfort zone that tends to make me repeat known exercise patterns and schedules, and discourages me from actively trying more diverse options: discovering an unknown running route, switching to a more physically active time slot, or trying something new – partly because I don’t know how much “approval” I’ll get.
Furthermore, it would be a lie to say that for every day of my 2,000+ days on Apple Watch, I’ve been in the right state of mind and body to exercise, and that every day I’ve been scheduled to “get up and move” for 12 hours. While the majority of records are kept voluntarily, voluntarily and honestly, there are three or five times a year when I cheat by dabbling in the illusion of standing and walking by shaking my arms, or modifying the time to “get back” a few hours of sedentary time, or marching in place as a stopgap measure when I don’t want to go out. Obviously, this is just a show to keep the punch card record, increasing anxiety without health benefits.
From an observer’s perspective, there is certainly a legitimate challenge to the situation I mentioned: “That’s your problem. I fully accept that criticism. I chose the Apple Watch and its narrow definition of health on my own. It was my own lack of novelty and flexibility. It was my voluntary submission to the regulation of a watch captured by a subordinate.
But acknowledging your responsibility doesn’t mean that other aspects of the problem aren’t worth discussing. A simple search will easily reveal that there are not a handful of people experiencing similar distress – my ‘problem’ is even mild by comparison – and that the Apple Watch is not the only one whose design is problematic.
In 2018, the BBC reported on the negative consequences of health tracking devices and apps, including anxiety, eating disorders, and compulsive exercise, citing interviews and studies.
In 2021, an article in The Verge noted that wearable devices generally just keep pushing users forward and are not good at guiding sensible and necessary rest.
Last year, national media reported on a burgeoning ‘proxy running’ industry in which users are willing to pay tens to hundreds of dollars for a ‘cloud run’ in order to receive virtual rewards in health apps.
On Reddit and Apple support forums, there are always periodic postings in a tone of either anxiety or panic about how to complete the ‘circle’ during a transatlantic flight, or how to retrieve records lost during a migration exchange.
How did the Apple Watch and its ilk become prone to ‘good intentions gone awry’?
Introducing some theoretical frameworks may help answer this question. In the abstract, healthy lifestyles such as active exercise, sensible eating, and regular exercise are all choices, and the goal of health wearables and apps is to provide motivation for users to make such choices. In psychology, this is what is studied in self-determination theory.
According to self-determination theory, the motivation behind a choice may be intrinsic, meaning that the activity itself is fun and satisfying, or extrinsic, meaning that the activity is designed to achieve a specific extrinsic goal. According to this classification, the average person is not overly intrinsically motivated to exercise; lying still and feasting are the most biologically instinctive options.
In my case, I’m conscious that I don’t “like” exercise in any sense. Even after wearing my Apple Watch for more than 2,000 days, I still often need to go through the “battle of the gods” and mental construction before exercising, and I still beat myself up from time to time for not being able to overcome my laziness or fear and miss the golden hour in the morning.
Therefore, exercise is still more dependent on external motivation to make it happen. Indeed, Apple Watch and other products commonly use goals, points, badges and other techniques to try to create goals to trigger the user’s extrinsic motivation.
But there are levels of extrinsic motivation. Some motivations are primarily controlled by external forces, with little self-involvement in the decision. For example, to yield to authority and command, or to be free from pressure and guilt. There are motivations that come from the outside but are “internalized” and integrated into the self-consciousness, thus moving closer to being active (autonomous). For example, the awareness of the importance of the behavior or the integration of the behavior into one’s own identity and beliefs. Not surprisingly, behaviors driven by the latter type of motivation are more likely to persist over time, inspire effort, and lead to satisfaction.
Or take yourself. In every self-talk of “to exercise or not to exercise”, Apple Watch at best can only play a role in boosting. But what really gives people the courage to jump in the water at 15 degrees below zero, and open their legs at 30 degrees, is ultimately an identity: “It’s part of me to go out and bounce around every morning”. The dull limbs do not always understand that “exercise is good for your health”, and such a philosophy is too complicated for them; but if exercise becomes a choice that concerns the survival and realization of “self”, the primitive subconscious will shout for you.
Given the benefits of increasing motivational initiative, how can this be achieved? Self-determination theory suggests that this is achieved by satisfying three basic needs: autonomy (e.g., being encouraged to participate in choices, having one’s views recognized), competence (e.g., having improved skills, receiving constructive and clear feedback), and relatedness (e.g., feeling like one belongs to a group, feeling the attention and support).
This is where the problem lies. When existing health products are placed within this framework, it becomes clear that they do not support the fulfillment of these needs very well, but often act as a barrier.
From an autonomy perspective, the evaluation systems of the Apple Watch and its ilk are unilaterally predetermined and imposed on the user by the manufacturer; they neither reflect scientific theory to support them nor leave enough room for customization. In these systems, the proliferation of numerical values and charts creates an illusion of “objectivity,” while badges and punch cards that cannot be turned off and repeatedly notify alerts trigger anxiety and fear that goals will not be achieved. As a result, people feel more like they are being pushed by external forces towards a uniform “healthy life” without reflecting their own needs and desires.
From a sense of competence perspective, limited by the level of technology, current smart health devices are unable to guarantee the accuracy and completeness of recorded data, but always “announce” their achievements to users in an unquestionable way. If there are errors and omissions, it creates a strong negative feedback and makes users feel that their efforts are negated. At the same time, existing applications rarely provide meaningful interpretations based on the data, but mostly give sketchy, specious summaries based on statistical features that do not contribute to the improvement of users’ motor skills.
From the perspective of the sense of connection, these products generally lack consideration for the complexity of life’s realities, and there is no accommodation for unavoidable illnesses, injuries and other unexpected situations, not to mention a lack of care.
Of particular interest to observe are the ‘gamification’ elements common in health devices and applications. The software industry’s overuse of the term ‘gamification’ has long been a source of resentment in the gaming industry, denouncing it as a form of ‘hype’. For example, some practitioners have pointed out that the effects of so-called ‘gamification’ elements such as trophies, leaderboards, and player competition are based on the appeal brought about by setting, art, and balance, and are not a panacea that can be used everywhere. In the framework of self-determinism, gamification elements as external motivation can only work if the game itself is designed to be intrinsically motivated to play.
As a result, while health tech is busy borrowing gamification elements, it often ignores and avoids the basic fact that ‘exercise is boring’. The resulting motivation is either ineffective or short-lived, quickly fading after the reinforcement stops, or overwhelming, replacing and hindering the user’s true goal of pursuing a healthy life. After using the Apple Watch for a long time, I became disenchanted with some of the frequently earned badges as routine and became unnecessarily obsessed with other demanding, rigid goals, perhaps as a side effect of this hollow gamification.
In fact, if the problem this article attempts to summarize does exist, then it only reaffirms a tendency in the tech industry to think that everything can be done. This thinking assumes that everything can be abstractly modeled so that it can be numerically observed and programmatically controlled. When this thinking is used to guide the development of health products, the user’s body and life becomes the object of programming and optimization.
This is a lack of reverence for the complexity of the physical world. As research in the field of exercise and health shows, people still have limited knowledge of their bodies; as everyone’s common sense knows, life is full of randomness and change. So, with just a little data collected from the wrist, what is the basis for talking and telling the user what to do?
Some manufacturers seem to be aware of this problem. The Verge article cited earlier cites some relatively humane approaches. For example, starting with the Charge 4, Fitbit has replaced a simple step goal with Active Zone Minutes (AZM). The rate at which this data accumulates depends on how much more active energy consumption exceeds resting energy consumption; the goal is also individualized and on a weekly basis, so you don’t have to focus too much on the gains or losses of one or two days. Oura, a ring-based health tracker, proposes a “rest mode” that can be activated when you are unwell, injured, or need to rest, when the system stops tracking exercise goals and emphasizes more recovery-related indicators such as sleep quality and heart rate changes.
As for the Garmin I replaced, it didn’t do very well: its so-called “body power” and “stress index” often gave inexplicable readings; “sedentary tips” also didn’t know how to rest late at night; it didn’t exempt itself from making its own badge system, but it was more than ten times uglier than the one made by Apple. If there is any virtue in Jiaming, it lies in the fact that it does not impose its own system on you. Once I turned off all the achievement-related notifications and removed the fancy metrics from the dials and apps, I basically got a pure exercise recording device.
But to be honest, I don’t really care how well it does either. As I said at the beginning, I abandoned the Apple Watch not to find a better alternative, but to call a halt to my tendency to focus too much on external evaluation of health devices.
In that sense, I’ve achieved my goal, and I’ve achieved it far more easily than I expected. Almost as soon as my struggle to maintain a clock record came to a screeching halt, I also completed a cognitive demystification. Since then, I have not been emotionally affected by missing laps, miscalculating pace (the Garmin is known for recording runs, but is very inaccurate at swimming), or failing to finish or save badges. Is this the “first 100 days” of the card? I’m not feeling it anymore.
And so, by leaving the health narrative constructed by the Apple Watch, I moved on to an alternative, more accurate reality: inaccuracy is the state of the art, instability is part of the system; I can’t be represented by the watch I wear.
This is not to promote the futility of technology or to deny the existence of health devices. While there is no motivation that has to be created by something outside of the body, there is always a difference between easy and difficult decisions, and there is always a first step in the movement. Sometimes, wearing an angular watch is what motivates you to step outdoors, and receiving a few electronic “red flowers” is what inspires you; even if it’s consumerism-driven exercise, it’s better than lying still.
And through self-criticism, I want to illustrate that no matter what external motivation is introduced, don’t cede ultimate control and judgment to the self. Don’t let technology turn the tables on you just because it provides easier access to external motivation or brings greater satisfaction in the short term; don’t let technology’s apparent objectivity and authority carry you off the pace by its specious advice and demoralize you by its inevitably erroneous conclusions. Don’t let the power of technology dictate to you, and don’t punish yourself with its folly.