“Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”attributed to Albert Einstein, but the true source is murky!
Are you someone who enjoys tracking your fitness goals? When I first began teaching fitness we would often take a moment to take our pulse and refer to a chart on the wall to figure out how hard we were working – completely low-tech! Now when I teach a class, almost everyone is glancing at their Apple watches or Fitbit to check in with their heart rate and step count. There are so many things we can measure when it comes to fitness these days, from sleep hygiene to our body’s response to stress (through an electrodermal sensor).
Research has found that wearable devices can help with motivation, accountability, and even alerting users to major health issues (this 2020 review, cited below, identifies the major benefits as articulated by consumers).
Of course, trackers do a great job of quantitatively tracking our health and fitness but lack the ability to capture the less tangible benefits to our health. Many of the qualitative benefits that we take away from fitness that have nothing to do with physical health and can be very difficult to measure. There is research that supports exercise for mood, focus, energy levels and sleep but there are many benefits we feel that are difficult to articulate and measure.
It could be the tiny adjustment to your posture that has a ripple effect, allowing you to feel more confident or breathe more deeply. It could be the relationship you have with another fitness class participant that boosts your happiness. Maybe it’s the empowerment you feel after finishing the 5k that you never thought you could do.
Is it possible to measure the subtle changes that we glean from exercise?
In many ways these are the changes that matter more than the numbers because they are what we connect with on an emotional level. It’s not the step count at the end of the day that makes us feel fulfilled so much as the experience that we may have had walking through the woods or catching up with a friend on a lunchtime stroll.
While there are established questionnaires and tools to measure emotions like happiness, it’s complicated. Many of the psychological benefits of exercise we hear are anecdotes, rather than established research. Then there is the difficulty of measuring moods and feelings that can mean different things to different people.
As an example, how can we measure grace? We often talk about feeling graceful after a barre class but what does that really mean?
Are the quantitative measurements that we use in fitness all that effective?
Many of the measurements that we follow have no real basis in science. The 10000 steps/day advice was put to the test in a recent study and, while there were benefits to moving more, there was nothing special about 10000 steps. The advice for 8 glasses water/day and calorie counts is not always clear cut but we often hear it and think that the goal is established and immutable. Relying too much on numbers can distance us from tuning into our body and its needs. If we force ourselves to hit 10000 steps on a day when we really need rest, its counterproductive to our health.
How can we get connect and feel the intangible benefits of fitness?
I believe that, while we can’t effectively MEASURE feelings like grace, joy, and emotional connection that can come from exercise, we can take steps to raise our own awareness to these sensations by:
- choosing the workout that best fits what you need, physically AND emotionally
- setting an intention for a workout (how do you want to feel at the end of your exercise time?)
- pausing and reflecting on what you felt
- acknowledging and celebrating progression in numbers but leaving space for the intangible – e.g. noting that “yes – I increased the length of my plank by 15 seconds!” but making the emotional connection to the feeling of empowerment hat it gave you!
Resources on the Emotional Benefits of Exercise:
Despite the issues in capturing exercise benefits that can’t easily be “counted”, there are some great resources on the topic of exercise and mental health:
- Kelly McGonigal’s The Joy of Movement is an extremely enjoyable book that connects neuroscience with exercise and makes the argument that exercise is connected with happiness, community, and so much more.
- John Ratey’s Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (which I used for my Wellness Book Club at Brock last year!) is an amazing read that collects the research on mental health and exercise to argue that exercise can have a positive effect on anxiety, dementia, depression and more.
What do you think? Are there ways to measure health that we just haven’t discovered? Do you like to track your health and fitness? Please share in the comments!
Until next time,
Chong, Kimberly P. L., et al. ‘Consumer Perceptions of Wearable Technology Devices: Retrospective Review and Analysis’. JMIR MHealth and UHealth, vol. 8, no. 4, Apr. 2020, p. e17544. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.2196/17544.