Count not what counts

I first joined Instagram in December 2011. Let that sink in. I first got a smart watch just this January.

As tenuous as it may seem there is a direct link between the two.

Back in 2011, when some of our Instagram influencers were writing JAMB I was posting gloomy, grainy, arty images – for that was the trend of the times.

The erstwhile Instagram influencers were landscape photographers mainly, or those who went on weekend photo walks and posted gloomy, grainy, arty black and white images of architecture.

This was 2011 after all, way before the neutral flat lays, poolside sausage legs, impeccable birds eye views of your dinner at Nobu or Nok by Alara. Heck, there was no Nok by Alara, there wasn’t even an Alara Lagos.

Even our hashtags were a sign of simpler times; there was #igfam and #photooftheday and every day you’d have a theme such as #flowers or #journey and share as abstract or distinct a representation of your theme to hike up your likes and followers.

This was before #iwokeuplikethis or #nofilter, even before #tbt.

By the time millennials discovered what was once the playground of landscape photographers and independent travellers and turned it mainstream, you could swing a camera phone without fear or smashing a new Instagrammer in the feed.

Before we knew it, gone were the moody landscape images, here to stay endless brunch spreads from the hippest coffee shops around the world interspersed with #lookoftheday pictures of Instagram models. Soon enough, we all #wokeuplikethis.

Around the time Gen X decided they were gone past the days of Facebook thumbs up (Why do you think Facebook eventually introduced a variety of different reactions) or too old to complete for double taps amidst the carefully created, curated, filtered millennial content, we turned our attention to things that counted that we had more control over.

Cue the rise of smart watches. The humble pedometer began rising in popularity around exactly the same time Instagram got mainstream; this is my theory anyway. Admit it, you had one or you were on the verge of getting one when came along the first generation of fitness trackers.

After all, you can still count how many steps you take or how many calories you burn a day, and get competitive, should you choose to, with no other variables in the equation than your own strong will to hike up the exercise. Stop counting the likes and the comments, start counting the steps and the calories.

While an early adopter of Instagram, like most other social media, I was a late arrival at the smart watch / fitness tracker party. The first time I genuinely had a remote interest in investing in one was mid-2017.

Following a lifestyle change halfway through the year, the arrival of a new puppy which would need walking and a newfound interest in building my fitness, I went for a very basic smart watch I got for about £25.

It showed the time, counted your step and calculated the calories you burned. There was no sleep tracking, no activity trackers, no heartbeat monitor – things I soon found could also be tracked, counted and recorded. This was my trial watch after all.

Each day I found myself trying that little bit harder to outdo the achievements of the day before. 5,247 steps? Surely I could hit 6,000. As I enjoyed this newly discovered passion for more exercise, I also realised the limitations of my starter watch. If I went spinning and burnt more calories than the daily average, there was no way of recording this?

How about my anaerobic and aerobic heart rate? I had to find out just how my body moved. What about sleep? Friends all around were telling me about their average sleep times and resting heartbeat. I on the other hand could only speak of my daily step count.

After many a hint and a false flag, this January, I got my first Apple Watch as a birthday present. Since then there is no stopping me. With just one quick glance at my wrist, I can tell you I’ve taken 6,166 steps today, my resting heart rate is 44bpm, I spent six hours 14 minutes in bed last night but only five hours 30 minutes asleep. Every breath, wink, step is tracked, counted and recorded for posterity.

Then somewhere along the line you realise, what we count now – bodily occurrences – is not much different to what we used to count then – daily occurrences.

A vlogger patiently clocking the number of views on their latest video is not so much different than the runner recording their latest personal best.

The first an achievement closely linked to forces outside of one’s self, the second an outcome of how much one pushes herself to the limit, independent of outside forces. Each however supply the same intrinsic human need: a hit of dopamine.

According to a recent study “Every time we post, share, ‘like,’ comment or send an invitation online, we are creating an expectation,” according to the study. “We feel a sense of belonging and advance our concept of self through sharing.”

Incidentally, there is a dopamine related downside to fitness trackers too: constant data of your exercise rather than the exercise itself can crush the joy of exercise.

Take the runner’s high — the dopamine rush you get from running. Every time you check heart rate, pace, or split time, you get a little dopamine hit. But eventually the numbers become the source of pleasure rather than the actual activity. You need to look at the device more and more to get your fix, while the activity itself becomes secondary.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not about the swear off my smart watch, I am just a tad more aware that it is just another form of tracking devised to rewire our pleasure receptors while tracking and measuring every little puny human activity from sleeping to breathing.

Then there are things you simply do not want measured, tracked, recorded, filtered and shared: the depth and the breadth of every moment you are alive, the number of sunsets you will fit on all your years, the barely there feel of a baby’s milky breath on your skin.

After all, as the quote goes, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” So every now and again, put your tracker away, switch off your phone, and enjoy those moments beyond measure.

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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