Health trackers have received much acclaim for their ability to inspire us to exercise. But researchers and clinicians are increasingly discovering that they can have a downside, too.
Consider: You decide to get off the couch and join a couple of friends in a spinning class. When the class ends, you check your tracker and discover that you just burned off 375 calories. A feeling of accomplishment washes over you, and you immediately make plans to attend the class again.
But then you start comparing your stats with those of your friends, only to learn that they burned nearly twice as many calories, a discovery that kills your euphoria and leaves you feeling like a loser who couldn’t keep up. Your interest in taking the class again suddenly disappears.
This is happening more often than people used to think. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that tracking an activity can significantly reduce enjoyment of the activity, making it feel more like work than pleasure. As a result, people often cut back on and sometimes even quit the activity.
Researchers have also found a more imminent danger: Fitness and calorie trackers can worsen symptoms of eating disorders.
“I see so many people whose eating disorder was either triggered or exacerbated by food and fitness trackers,” said Jennifer Rollin, therapist and founder of the Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Md. “These trackers encourage a fixation of numbers which can be dangerous or even deadly for people.”
This does not mean that using a tracker is dangerous for everyone. A recent study in BMC Psychology found that the devices offer, by and large, a positive experience with little risk for most people. However, the researchers concluded that some people are more vulnerable to negative consequences from them, and all users may experience anxiety or frustration when they are prevented from wearing their devices.
So how do you know whether you should keep or ditch your tracker? Rollin points out three signs that yours could be doing more harm than good.
You are ignoring body cues. You feel fatigued, but you continue to exercise because your tracker says you need more steps. Or you are very hungry but forgo food because your device says you can’t eat any more calories that day.
Your mood depends on your numbers. You feel sad or shameful for not meeting your activity or calorie goals, and your sense of self-worth is tied to those numbers.
You are mentally preoccupied with your device. You spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about meeting the numerical goals on your tracker.
Rollin points out that regardless of whether those particular signs apply to you, trackers compel us to focus on numbers rather than the intrinsic pleasures of being active and eating well.
“Someone might say, ‘I’m not wearing my tracker today so it isn’t worth it to take a walk,’ ” she said.
She suggests shifting the emphasis from numerical goals to finding activities you enjoy. Doing laps around your living room to reach your step goal beats being glued to the sofa, but doesn’t it sound infinitely more joyful and sustainable to forget about the numbers, crank up the music and dance around the living room instead?