Inside the wellness world’s rumbling culture war

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There’s an issue dividing the country, and it has nothing to do with who you’re going to vote for in this year’s General Election (whenever they’re going to call it) or whether Saltburn was actually any good.

Away from the corridors of power and strip-lit TV studios, you’ll find the battle-weary soldiers of this particular debate fighting it out in Instagram comments, on the shelves of Waterstones and on the gym floor. The cause of all this commotion is the chasm between Big Data and Big Feelings.

In one corner, you’ll find the trackers. They document their macros consumed, hours spent in REM and monthly bleeds with the level of enthusiasm Hermione had for homework.

Their weekly screen time skyrocketed when they began getting insights on everything from sleep quality to exercise readiness delivered to their phone via their celeb-endorsed Oura ring.

They’ve dedicated an entire spreadsheet to their progressive training plan and could deliver a TED talk on the merits of using a continuous glucose monitor to track their sugar levels – and adapting your habits accordingly.

In the other corner, you’ll find the intuitives. Among them, meticulously planning your food and fitness is a red flag that your healthy habits might be anything but; they schedule exercise based on their mood and energy levels and they’re more in tune with their bodies than your yoga teacher during a full moon.

And it’s not just that people are taking different approaches to being healthy; these two sides are becoming increasingly polarised. Both camps believe they’re in the right – and their views are becoming more entrenched.

Anatomy of a standoff

The backstory begins post-war, with the invention of the lie detector – the first machine to include sensors to measure galvanic skin response (GSR), heart rate and blood pressure, all of which are metrics that form the foundations of trackers as you know them today.

As technology progressed and human lifespans increased, the concept of preventative healthcare became a goal worth striving for – and a cash cow for those in Silicon Valley who were behind the most innovative products and brands that promised good health based on real research.

Wearables, and the gamification of health and fitness, followed. In 2009, Fitbit (previously named Healthy Metrics Research) launched its first device, simply called Fitbit, which clipped on to the user’s clothing and used an internal motion detector to track the wearer’s movement, sleep and calorie-burn.

Garmin, known for GPS-tracking devices like satnavs, joined the fun in 2013, and the Apple Watch launched in 2015. A year later, in 2016, Fitbit CEO James Park announced that the company was undergoing a major transformation from what he called a ‘consumer electronics company’ to a ‘digital healthcare’ one.

‘Why not make use of all the data that makes monitoring your progress more specific and personal?’

And while the technology inevitably improved, what really got the average Jane enthralled by metrics was the promise that it could lead to a longer, healthier life. And the gadget launches have continued apace ever since.

The explosion of wellness hasn’t just delivered easy-access kefir and a greater understanding of why strength training doesn’t bulk. Indeed, more and more people over the past decade have become motivated to take their health into their own hands, and why not make use of statistics and tracking abilities that make monitoring your progress all the more convenient and personal?

Certainly, for the particularly time-poor, there’s a sense of taking back control when your life, to-do list or schedule seems to be spiralling out of your hands. But, like clean-eating before it, a metric-driven approach to health slowly began to lose favour among certain parts of the wellness sphere.

Rigorous macro-counting and stats-monitoring was accused of being disordered behaviour dressed up in athleisure, and the general Big Data backlash signalled a more cautious approach to inputting personal health statistics into devices.

Food and fitness influencers were among the first defectors to a more intuitive approach, phasing out posts about punishing workouts and ‘clean’ meals in favour of monologuing about the joy of eating and exercising without worrying about the numbers.

Weight Watchers – arguably the original tracking tool – rebranded to WW in a bid to appear more in line with holistic health and wellness. And while brands and influencers alike continue to preach the benefits of balance – that is, finding a way of healthy living that works for the individual – it’s becoming increasingly clear that the middle ground is being vacated in favour of two opposing sides that have become more and more polarised.

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The alternative to tracking, rules and metrics – commonly termed intuitive living – has gone from fringe movement to an industry in its own right, encompassing everything from anti-diet bibles to intuitive-living coaches. Its origins lies in intuitive eating, first championed by writer and psychotherapist Dr Susie Orbach in her book Fat Is A Feminist Issue.

Essentially, the wellness industry – following its growth and mainstreamification – is splintering; players in the ballooning ecosystem falling into differing camps. Factor in, too, the echo chamber of social media and this factionalism will intensify.

‘Platforms like Instagram allow you to sort by these preferences, and to interact mostly with other people who think like you do,’ adds Dr Sarah Rose Cavanagh, psychologist and author of Hivemind: The New Science Of Tribalism In Our Divided World, who explains that this only cements existing viewpoints.

‘If you put a group of people in a room and ask them to discuss something they already agree on, their opinions tend to get more entrenched. Hearing your own opinion echoed back at you is rewarding and reinforcing and causes you to dig your heels in deeper,’ she continues.

‘And when everyone is agreeing, people who might have slightly dissenting opinions tend to stay silent, and people assume there is no dissension.’ Which is all well and good, until the two camps collide.

Wrong side of the tracks

A fitness influencer told WH off the record: ‘I’m a lot more mindful of what I upload now than I was a few years ago. Posts on the meals I prepped (including calorie count), what weekly workout regime I followed and my Apple Watch goals used to be my go-to content – and were received well – but now those kinds of posts open me up to negative comments about being too prescriptive and forcing my attitude to health and fitness
on others.’

She continues: ‘I’ve found it’s more important to strike a balance between those who look at health as something to be monitored and those who see it as something we already know how to manage. I won’t share what I eat in a day, how long I sleep for or my personal workout goals in case someone misconstrues it as me – a blogger, not a health professional – setting their goals or metrics for them.’

‘But, equally, I don’t stand by the idea that we should all be ruled by our own bodies, because my followers still want actionable advice. It’s made the wellness sphere trickier to navigate, for sure.’

Some think that by focusing on the conflict between the two approaches, the fundamental point is being missed. Both work – depending on who you are and how you work. Just look at the success of MyFitnessPal – the platform that allows you to track your calories and exercise – with its 150 million global users.

‘Trackers are likely to be people who enjoy metrics in other realms of life,’ says Dr Cavanagh. ‘They’ll be organised, conscientious people who enjoy being in control and have a high attention to detail.’

For others within the metric-driven tribe, it’s less about self-optimisation and more about health and body-composition maintenance. ‘I’ve got many clients who are type A, data-driven people and they respond well to having a number to aim for,’ says nutritional therapist Kay Ali. ‘They feel empowered by tracking and the knowledge this gives them about their habits, bodily functions and predispositions to certain food groups or health issues.’

Plus, fundamentally, if your goal is healthy weight loss – achieved by
a calorie deficit – knowledge is power. Samantha Earl, 43, from Essex, bought a fitness tracker and downloaded a food-tracking app on the advice of her PT.

‘My type A, data-driven clients respond really well to having a number to aim for’

‘I wanted to develop a healthier approach to my diet and fitness, which had slipped since having my daughter three years ago,’ she says. ‘I haven’t lost a huge amount of weight, but it’s become a way of being aware of what I’m putting into my body and the amount I’m moving.’

For Samantha, such an awareness has led to the adoption of healthy habits – like getting off the Tube a couple of stops early and walking the rest of the journey – among some more questionable habits like stomping around the garden before bed to hit her step count. ‘I think it’s my addictive personality,’ she jokes.

For others, a more mindful attitude sans statistics works. Hannah Shepperton, a 30-year-old admin assistant from Brighton, is self-aware enough to know that metrics won’t work for her. ‘I trust myself that I know what’s enough – both in exercise and food – and listen to my body. I’m not as lean as I used to be back when I did use tracking apps, but I have more energy and, mentally, I’m in a much healthier place.’

Her view is borne out in research, with a Florida State University study finding intuitive eating generates fewer disordered eating symptoms than more traditional diets.

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Among those whose day job is helping people reach their fitness goals, tangible data is considered highly motivating. ‘For most people, doing what you feel like won’t get you the results you’re looking for,’ says PT Nick Finney. ‘Consistency is hard to maintain, and when willpower starts to fade, that’s when you can turn to targets, goals and measurable progress. Don’t underestimate the psychological boost of seeing tangible proof that you added a couple of kilos to your best lift or ran your 2k six seconds faster.’

When pressed on the potential problems that such an approach can give rise to, he’s clear: ‘Just because tracking can trigger unhealthy behaviour patterns for some people doesn’t mean it’s not useful for others. For many of my clients, not tracking would lead to unhealthy patterns of a different sort, such as not getting out of bed to work out at all.’

Counter intuitive

What can escalate discussions from friendly to fiery is the fact that many passionate proponents of the intuitive approach have made their way there by way of negative experiences on the other side of the divide. And so intuitives feel that those pushing the tracking way of wellness are encouraging people towards disordered eating, obsessive behaviours and – ultimately – an unhealthy approach to, well, health.

Indeed, research from Duke University in North Carolina found that activity-tracking can decrease enjoyment of whatever pastime someone is trying to quantify, and even lead people to do less of it when the trackers are off. A study published in the journal Eating Behaviors also found associations between the use of calorie-counting and/or fitness-tracking devices and eating disorder symptoms among college students.

Trackers, however, will argue that beneath the veneer of please-all social media posts, the average person is looking for results from preventative healthcare measures, and any kind of measurable progress requires a method of monitoring.

‘I don’t stand by the idea that we should all be ruled by our own bodies – people still want advice’

Plus, decades of research has helped us identify the healthiest food, workout and sleep choices – should we really advocate ignoring the science and just doing what your body tells you it needs? After all, the UK is in the grips of an obesity crisis, chronic health conditions are on the rise due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles and more people than ever are battling sleep issues.

Time you picked a side? Not necessarily. ‘Which camp you fall into might
well evolve over time, at different stages of your life,’ adds Ali. ‘When you have the time to dedicate to pursuing a specific health goal, you might prefer a tracking approach. But when you have other responsibilities and pressures, you might need to be more intuitive. The important thing is to find an approach – or combination of approaches – that works for you, which you can enjoy and sustain over time.’

In the words of a swirly lettered meme, you do you. And to all those committed to the battle, play nice now.

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