The Step Challenge: Helpful or Harmful?

Fitness trackers have been become very popular over the past few years. No matter the brand or type, being able to track your daily activity has become a helpful tool in measuring health and fitness for everyone in one way or another. One of the most attractive aspects of fitness trackers is the social experience; being able to compare your activity to friends and strangers and even competing with them in daily / weekly step challenges. However, the question that needs to be asked is if these competitions helpful or harmful to your overall goal. The grind to separate yourself from the group and come out victorious in your step challenge can be stressful and tiresome, but when its all said and done, is it worth it?

For those of you who may not be familiar, let me explain how these step challenges work. With the most popular fitness trackers comes an app that allows you to add people to your friends list. From there, you can compare your activity in the form of “steps” with your friends over different increments of time, mainly for the week. On top of comparing steps with your friends list, you can start or join step challenges; competitions over a specified length of time to see who can get the most “steps” among those included. The length of time for each competition varies from daily, just the weekend, or for an entire week. At the end of the challenge, a digital trophy is awarded to the person with the most steps. Sounds fun, right?

If you’ve never used a fitness tracker, you’re probably wondering how these “steps” are tracked, especially for a device thats typically worn on your wrist. One of the most popular fitness tracker companies, FitBit, details how their device tracks steps on their website like this:

Fitbit trackers use a 3-axis accelerometer to understand your motions. An accelerometer is a device that turns movement (acceleration) into digital measurements (data) when attached to the body. By analyzing acceleration data, our trackers provide detailed information about frequency, duration, intensity, and patterns of movement to determine your steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, and sleep quality. The 3-axis implementation allows the accelerometer to measure your motion in any way that you move, making its activity measurements more precise than older, single-axis pedometers.

In plain english, the fitness tracker calculates the way your wrist moves and counts it as a “step” depending on the motion/speed of your wrist. Although this may seem like a very accurate way to track your steps and activity throughout the day, it’s not 100% accurate and there are ways to gain steps without actually moving your feet at all. Here lies the problem; if you win or lose a step challenge, are you really winning or losing?

Before I go further, let me say that I support the idea of people being more physically active in general. Multiple studies show that the average person takes about 4,000 steps per day. A lot of us are less active than others, by working at desks or other stationary jobs. Combine that with generally unhealthy diets and this is how you get to a majority of the population in our country being overweight / obese. Anything to get people more active is something I’d definitely support, so if a step challenge or a fitness tracker helps a person be more active in their life then go for it! However, before you go joining a step challenge with your brand new fitness tracker, there are some things to consider.

What are your fitness goals?

If you’re like me, you’re fat and your goal is to be less fat. Maybe your goal is to run a faster mile, or to swim more, or bike more. Some people are in shape when it comes to stamina or weight, but they want to be stronger or leaner. If any of the aforementioned applies to you, ask yourself if winning a step challenge helps that. If you get in more steps throughout the day / week, but you don’t change your diet, will you lose weight? If you don’t lift any weights, will you get stronger? Keep your goals in mind and stay focused on what you have to do to reach those goals.

How competitive are you?

Some people LOVE competing, but HATE losing. The competitive spirit burns stronger in some folks, and getting in a competition with strangers can be toxic. The need to win a competition may overtake the focus on your personal goals and you may start to lose focus. Unless your personal goal is to be better than the next person, friend or stranger, a competition may not add any value to the pursuit of your personal fitness goals. For those of us that hate losing, coming in at less than first place in a fitness challenge may cause us to become discouraged and to ignore the progress we may have made in our real fitness goals. Losing is an important thing to consider, because of my next point…

Not everyone is honest; people WILL cheat to win.

Believe it or not, everyone in the world isn’t honest. Something as minuscule as winning a step challenge means the world to some people, to the point where they will cheat to win. If there’s a prize / money involved, people will go to GREAT lengths to cheat. Attaching the tracker to a dog or cat, putting a tracker on a leg while biking / rollerblading, placing it on a shoe and tapping the foot continuously, and changing the dominant / non-dominant setting in the app are just a few ways that people cheat the system for more steps to win challenges. If you do an internet search for “how to cheat steps to a tracker” you will find dozens of ways people are breaking the honor code, while you are on the treadmill killing yourself just to stay at the top of the challenge.

All steps aren’t created equal.

10,000 steps aren’t always 10,000 steps. If one person runs 10,000 steps, and another person walks 10,000 steps, they all count the same towards a step challenge but more than likely the runner is going to burn a LOT more calories. Keep this in mind when you’re participating in a challenge, because if you sit at a desk 9 hours a day for work and go running for a hour, you still may end up with less steps than a person that works at a box folding company but never goes to the gym. If you’re in a step challenge with someone that delivers mail for a living, you might not ever beat them in a challenge, but what does this mean in the grand scheme of things?

If you’ve read this far and you are considering throwing your step tracker in the trash, don’t. This post isn’t to discourage you from tracking your steps or participating in step challenges. Instead, it’s to keep you focused in your pursuit of your fitness goal. Step challenges should be taken lightly, and your energy and emotion is better spent focused on your fitness goal. You may lose your step challenge every day or week, but do you feel more healthy? Are you losing weight / getting stronger? You should only be in competition with yourself!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

One comment

  1. Wanda says:

    I love using my Fitbit to help motivate me to exercise more, to walk more..when I lost my Fitbit charger I lost my motivation.. however now that I have my charger back I’m more determined than ever to meet my fitness goals!

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