The 19th Century Fibit

After admiring the cutting-edge central heating, bathroom, and electrical wiring at Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh, our tour guide pointed out another neat gadget in Mrs. Reid’s bedroom: jockey scales.

Dating back to the late 19th century, these scales were designed to weigh jockeys before horse races, but Mrs. Reid’s scales were used to weigh visitors to the castle. They’d be weighed twice, in fact: firstly on arrival, and then on departure. Ideally, the visitor would have gained weight, demonstrating a healthy and nutritious stay.

Attitudes towards health and fitness were, of course, very different a century ago. While they were concerned about weight, this little ritual shows they were worried more about being underweight than overweight.

Of course, there is at least 25% chance this story is utter bullshit — it wouldn’t be the first time a tour guide told a tall tale. But what a cautionary tale it is!

Fitness trackers are the jockey scales of our time, a fashionable gadget that demonstrates your personal commitment to healthy living. And just like gaining weight, there is little evidence that using a Fitbit will actually make you healthier.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/tl-tld100316.php

Now, it is true that you can be unhealthily thin, in which case it may be helpful to put on weight while you stay at your friend’s house (or castle). Likewise, you can be too sedentary, and so it may be helpful to wear a fitness tracker, assuming you actually use it properly, which most people don’t.

The point is not that I think fitness trackers are trash or that no-one should use them; rather, we should be aware that they represent a particular wave of fashion, one that is likely to dissipate in a few years in favour of an even more high-tech fad.

By all means, use a Fitbit if it works for you — but there are more important things you can do, like eating a little more vegetables and a little less meat, and doing more vigorous exercise that you find fun.

As for myself, I‘ve worn three step counters over the years. The first was a very uncool pedometer I wore for a few weeks to school in the 90s, and I don’t think it helped me at all.

The second was an early-model Fitbit, which I kept clipped to my belt. I was addicted to checking it throughout the day, and it did occasionally encourage me to walk a few hundred or thousand more steps. Whether that had any lasting impact on my health, I don’t know.

Today, I wear an Apple Watch. It is also addictive to see my ‘activity rings’ fill up during the day, and I find its use of calories to be marginally more scientific (as opposed to steps). Again, I don’t pretend that it is really doing anything to my health. I still walk exactly the same route to work, and I do the same 3–5 runs per week.

It does look cool, though, and isn’t that what really matters?

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