One of the best ways to get in shape is to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy. The reason is simple: If you enjoy doing something, you’re more likely to do it consistently. But it turns out that if you already enjoy exercising, or if you’re hoping to find a form of exercise that you like in the near future, then you may be better off foregoing the fitness tracker that you were thinking of wearing to track your workouts and quantify your activity.
As Robinson Meyer reports for The Atlantic, a study published by the Journal of Consumer Research seems to indicate that measuring an activity will make the activity less enjoyable and decrease your motivation to keep up with it. The findings are counterintuitive when you consider the current push toward the quantified self, with the rise of fitness-tracking gadgets like the Apple Watch and Fitbit’s line of trackers as well as the products of what Meyer terms “an age of corporate-enforced quantification.” He reports that while it’s unclear which parts of this “measurement moment” will fade and which ones will stick, the evidence is pretty convincing that when we do measure things, we might not enjoy them as much.
The study proposes that the more you seek to quantify something that would otherwise be rewarding for its own sake, the less likely you are to enjoy it and the less likely you are to do more of it. Through a series of experiment, Duke University marketing professor Jordan Etkin found that people’s intrinsic motivation to engage an activity — whether that activity is coloring, reading, or walking — declined once it was measured.
In one of those experiments, researchers asked 105 undergraduate students to color in shapes for a few minutes, and then to rate how much they enjoyed the activity. The students who got numerical feedback on their work, telling them how many shapes they had colored, ended up coloring more shapes, but reported enjoying the coloring less.
In two other experiments, researchers gave 100 subjects pedometers to wear throughout the day. Those who wore the pedometers walked more than those who didn’t, but enjoyed walking less, even when they didn’t have access to the device’s step counts. And in the final two experiments in the study, 300 students who read for a brief period time read more pages than a control group, but enjoyed it less, when they could see how many pages they had read.
Etkin told The Atlantic, “There’s a major stream of research in psychology that looks at how providing external rewards can undermine the inherent fun or enjoyment of doing something. 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.” However, she did note that if you’re completing an activity for a specific reason, having access to the data could actually make you more likely to stick with it.
She explained, “The reason why you’re engaging in the activity matters a lot. If it’s something that’s really goal-directed — I’m walking to lose weight, I’m walking because I want to be healthier — if walking serves some goal that I have, then measurement doesn’t make it feel less enjoyable. In fact, it can have some benefits for enjoyment.” She noted that the negative effects of measurement mostly seem to manifest themselves when the activity is something you’re doing just for fun, in which case, “measurement makes it not fun.”
Because the study was conducted with subjects from a very specific population — American undergraduates who are mostly western, educated, and from places that are industrialized, rich, and democratic — it’s unclear whether the study’s findings would turn out to be universally true if the same sort of experiments were performed with a more diverse group of subjects. And Meyer notes that psychological science is currently struggling with issues of replication, wherein findings that were thought to be core to the discipline have proven difficult to replicate.
But despite its limitations, the study should still be interesting for potential users of fitness-tracking devices and the people who make them. If you’re wearing a Fitbit to lose weight, and don’t consider the extra exercise much fun, then you may not care about the findings. But if you’re using a fitness tracker to try out and quantify different physical activities, at least a few of which you hope to learn to enjoy, then you might want to be careful about tracking your performance too closely.