The Dark Side of Fitness Tracking

When health-focused wearable devices spark obsession, anxiety, and shame

For Sheena Roetman, wearing a fitness tracker felt like walking around under a spotlight.

Roetman, a 34-year-old nonprofit media professional, has struggled with disordered eating in the past. In her eyes, the device strapped to her wrist was an invitation to be judged — an announcement to the world that she was paying attention to her health, which, in turn, called more attention to every single unhealthy thing she did.

“Honestly, I hated wearing it and the fact that people could see it,” she says. “I ended up feeling shamed by this little piece of plastic.” Soon enough, that piece of plastic became a constant source of anxiety.

Since the first Bluetooth headset sold in 2000, the wearable tech industry has been hard at work inserting itself into our daily lives. And by all accounts, it’s working: The number of connected wearable devices worldwide is expected to jump to 1.1 billion or more by 2022, and some experts predict that fitness trackers will generate more than $3 billion in global revenue by that same year.

But for many people, donning a health-focused device each day isn’t necessarily a good thing. Research suggests that even if you don’t ditch your tracker after the first few months, it can be difficult to develop a healthy, effective relationship with the device that’s monitoring your calories, steps, and minutes of sleep. In one study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, overweight participants who wore fitness trackers each day lost less weight than those who didn’t. In another, people who wore them for a full year were no healthier than they’d been at the start of the study. On the other end of the spectrum, users can become too obsessed with the data their devices are collecting, leading them to self-diagnose problems that don’t exist; they can get so invested in their stats that it drains any enjoyment from previously pleasant activities; and, in some cases, fitness trackers can even exacerbate disordered eating behaviors.

Granted, the communal element of fitness tracking can sometimes be a powerful accountability tool, providing the support and motivation people need to develop better health habits. Psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld, owner of Gatewell Therapy Center in Miami, Florida, says she’s seen patients have positive experiences with apps designed to help them cut down on alcohol or stop smoking, for example. “The issue is not necessarily just the app,” she says. “It’s the combination of the app and the person who’s using it.”

Inspirational quotes on social media remind us to slow down, practice mindfulness, and take deep breaths; at the same time, we’re being prompted to check in, track progress, and constantly respond to notifications.
If you’re a person with obsessive tendencies, Rosenfeld advises setting firm boundaries for yourself, like tracking your calories only while actively exercising or checking your data for just a small window of time each day.

For Roetman, switching devices was enough. She still tracks her steps with an Apple Watch but feels more at ease with a device that’s not fitness-specific. She also makes sure to keep her steps private: “It feels a lot less invasive,” she says, “without feeling like I’m walking around with a ‘judge me because I obviously care’ sign taped to my wrist.”

If you tend to get swept up in competition, it can also help to avoid any digital challenges or real-life settings that pit you against other users. Emily Cox, a 29-year-old physical therapist assistant in Atlanta, Georgia, stopped using workout-tracking apps last fall after recognizing that she was becoming obsessive about exercise. Those feelings came rushing back when she found herself in an interval training class that doled out heart rate monitors so attendees could monitor—and broadcast—how they were doing. “When there are screens displaying everyone’s statistics throughout the class, it basically singles out people who ‘aren’t working as hard,’” she says. “Everyone has different fitness levels, goals, and abilities, and it makes you feel either inferior or like you didn’t do very well if you’re not in the top of the class.”

Sometimes, though, those challenges might feel unavoidable. When Andrea D., a 29-year-old nonprofit manager (who preferred that her last name be withheld to protect the privacy of her former co-workers), was working at her job in Manhattan, her office held a competition to see which team could take the most steps during a certain period. (These competitions are so ubiquitous that Office Depot has its own guide to running one at your company.) Members of the winning department would receive bonuses, which Andrea was excited about, but things quickly turned toxic.

“I have a clear memory of being shamed by my male supervisor for not walking up 13 flights of stairs in heels and a suit,” Andrea says. Others with low step counts had their chairs stolen or were forced to pace during meetings, she says. “The nursing mother in my department went to HR when [co-workers] said she had to pace while pumping in the closet they provided, but HR said it was a voluntary project and they couldn’t police it.”

We’ve arrived at an interesting point in wellness culture. Inspirational quotes on social media remind us to slow down, practice mindfulness, and take deep breaths; at the same time, we’re being prompted to check in, track progress, and constantly respond to notifications. “It’s a fine line,” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. Apps have turned movement and mindfulness into one more thing to do, she says. “In the long run, missing a few days of meditation may be better for your mental health than obsessive ideation.”

When you’re caught up in your numbers, this can be a tough thing to fully absorb. But it helps to remember the limitations of what those numbers can reveal. “To live by data alone is to dismiss a huge part of what it means to be human,” says Sharyn Saftler, a registered dietitian and owner of Living Is Simple, a health coaching practice in Redmond, Washington. “Meals are more than just calories, exercise is more than just hitting the gym for a certain amount of minutes, and sleep is much more than going to sleep when you’re tired and getting up when you’re not.” An overly narrow focus on metrics doesn’t just suck the pleasure out of these activities—it also removes any sense of balance, setting up a harsh binary in which you either succeed or fail.

Saftler has seen countless clients with aches, pains, stress, and poor relationships with food or exercise and statistics that depict them as healthy. Tracking can be useful for some, she adds, but you don’t want to become dependent on the data and lose the ability to listen to how your body is responding.

“Whether it’s helpful or harmful depends on what we’re measuring,” Rosenfeld says, “and how quickly, potentially, that behavior could become out of control.” In the pursuit of well-being, hitting quantitative targets isn’t the same thing as feeling healthy and happy. Ultimately, the latter is the more important goal.

All Rights Reserved for Caroline Cox

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