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Worshiping the wrist god

Look at your wrist, now back to me, now back at your wrist, now back to me. Sadly, your smartwatch isn’t a barbell. (You can pat yourself on the back if you got that reference 1).

This isn’t a long winded whinge about how technology is ruining young people or how the old methods are the best, blah blah whatever. Advances in technology and our understanding of human behaviour and physiology have radically transformed the strength and conditioning landscape. If we handed all our tools and textbooks over to the Russian strength pioneers of the 70s and 80s, they would still be invincible half a century later. Instead, they’re now forced to sit in the naughty corner every time they’re caught injecting Make Stronger Juice™.

I do however want to address two main topics: the role of dopamine in addiction related behaviour 2 and aversion to hard work.

In 2015 a group of scientists hooked up a group of unlucky (or lucky, some might say) mice to a device that stimulated their dopamine receptors whenever they pressed a lever. Although the purpose of the study was to examine the neural pathways leading to addiction and relapse, another key point came to light. The mice would keep tapping away at that button, getting a feeling of reward every single time, even at the expense of eating, drinking and mating; arguably 3 of life’s greatest pleasures 3. Sounds rather familiar doesn’t it?

Without getting overly technical, one of the main purposes of dopamine is to reinforce the connection between doing something beneficial and the feeling of reward and pleasure you get from doing it. However, this system can very easily be hijacked by decidedly non-beneficial actions, leading to destructive addictive behaviours 2,4

Tech companies know this and every device and app is designed to grab and hold your attention by feeding you delicious little dopamine morsels 4,5. Over the years they’ve become exceedingly good at it too. Remember that weird hologram wrist strap thing that claimed to improve your balance or some nonsense? Every gym bro and yoga mom was wearing one, even though it was clearly and demonstrably bullshit. They were dropped faster than Tiger Woods was by his sponsors when the hologram company was forced by the Australian courts to admit it was all a lie. The next one was heart rate chest strap monitors. Again, gym bros and yoga moms were strapped up all time and compulsively checking their heart rate zones and averages and sharing it with their social circle in a weird kind of cardio flex off. You know what those people usually weren’t? In good shape.

Now we come to the latest trend: devices that constantly monitor your heart rate, blood oxygenation and sleep quality. They’re pretty accurate too and up to a certain point, the data they collect are valid6. Like the chest straps of before, you can create a social group and compare results and data with friends. Of course, this comparison now leads to competition and I’ll be lying if I didn’t say it is funny as hell watching a group of borderline alcoholics who get home at dawn 2 or 3 times per week trying to outsleep each other! The darker side of this is of course the dopamine hit from the perfectly designed app layout, point system and social comparison. What could have been useful data to complement your training protocol turns into a points driven obsession, with the resultant anxiety from not achieving that warm fuzzy feeling of seeing a reward on your screen. This leads to neglecting basic common sense habits such as avoiding electronics at night, limiting caffeine and alcohol, warming up properly before training and adjusting workout volume.

I am by no means anti-tech. The generated data are fascinating and can add clarity to your overall physical development. Just be mindful of the difference between gathering information and getting a reward. You’re not a lab mouse tapping on a lever, you’re an adult with a puny squat who urgently needs to hit the gym.


1Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

2Sufficiency of Mesolimbic Dopamine Neuron Stimulation for the Progression to Addiction

3Mice experiments explain how addiction changes our brains

4Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time – Science in the News

5Has dopamine got us hooked on tech? | Technology

6Measuring sleep: accuracy, sensitivity, and specificity of wrist actigraphy compared to polysomnography

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