Counting What Really Counts

Counting steps or calories is kind of like trading in a Rembrandt for a stick-figure portrait. It’s a sad approximation of our felt experience. Plus, counting reduces the sensuous activities of walking – or running – and eating to numbers and graphs.

Lego man counting the number of steps in his run using a FitBit on his wrist
Photo: Four Bricks Tall via Flckr Creative Commons

A few short years ago, months would pass before I heard about weekly mileage goals, average per-mile time, or number of laps completed before work from an obsessed runner or triathlete .

Today, not two days pass before I learn about the number of steps a colleague “got in” that day.  Family members now sneak their daily calorie counts into conversation.

In some ways all this counting seems to make sense. We get information about our health in the form of counts: blood pressure, cholesterol – the good and bad kinds -, triglycerides. We read food labels with counts of the grams of fat in its diverse forms, protein, carbohydrates, sugar, sodium, etc. And social media insist on telling us how many “friends” and “followers” we have at any given point. We’re awash in seemingly meaningful numbers and figures.

From time to time, I consider what the numbers really mean. If my blood pressure is low, does that mean I should feel worse than I do? Does knowing that packaged food is high in sodium change the way I enjoy the product? What does having 1,000 Facebook friends really tell me about relationships?

Counts merely tell us about the presence and magnitude of something. When we read that a food product contains 4 grams of protein per serving, we can reasonably compare it to a product with 8 grams of protein per serving. Yet, knowing a product’s nutritional content tells us little about its taste or quality.

Likewise, what do our daily step counts tell us about the environments we passed through while stepping? Are 10,000 steps on a gym’s treadmill the same as those taken on a mountainous trail? What do calorie counters, like MyFitnessPal, tell us about the richness – or blandness or savoriness – of our meals?

Like a self-absorbed marathoner, focusing on our step count removes us from the quality of each stride. Fitbit pushes our attention away from our lifeworld and pulls it toward a cold, rigid world of figures and steps.

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Several years ago behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman re-introduced the concept of experienced utility. Though I’m no fan of using economic terms (i.e., “utility”) to talk about lived experience, Kahneman poses a simple, elegant idea: that our assessments of things and experiences represent these things’ true value. That what matters isn’t the number of bicycles sold or vacations booked, but people’s appraisals of these things. What matters is our appraisal of our lived experiences.

It’s about focusing on the quality of that stroll in the park or that run around the neighborhood or the satiety you felt after savoring a good meal. It’s not about mindless counting. Let’s leave that to robots and economists.

In vernacular terms, counting is comes in the form of useful estimation.  Vernacularists estimate the number of pole beans plants to sow; the number of stitches needed to complete a row in a knitted scarf; the amount of yeast to use in a batch of homebrew; the amount of wood to chop in prep for winter. Each of these useful estimates put the vernacularist in tune with her unique style of gardening, brewing, and chopping. They embed her in the rhythms of nature. The only thing counting steps and calories does is to put users in tune with their devices.

I propose we try something radical. Let’s go outside. For a walk. Take a look around. Leave the Fitbit at home.

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