• Dr Lottie Miles

Is your fitness tracker harming your health?

Fitness trackers have burst onto the scene in recent years. They come in the form of watches, chest straps, smart phone apps, weight scales and GPS devices and are capable of measuring many aspects of our daily lives in great detail.


There is a good reason why trackers are popular. They are great motivational tools for a start. Most fitness trackers encourage you to set short-term fitness related goals, such as 10,000 steps a day. These goals are easy to measure and set a time limit you should aim to achieve them by. They keep you focused on the process of getting fitter, motivating you to take extra measures, or find new ways to keep up your activity each day (e.g. taking stairs instead of escalators or parking further away from a building entrance).

Seeing your progress is very satisfying too; it’s rewarding to see a pattern of achievements and a trend in the direction of your outcome goals. This in turn motivates you to keep up the good work, even on days you don’t feel like it.

Many trackers have a social aspect to help with your motivation too. For example, Fitbit encourages you to complete challenges against friends and share your achievements with their online community. This creates a level of accountability that will encourage you to maintain your step count day in, day out.

Despite all this, the scientific literature assessing the use of fitness trackers hasn’t consistently found big improvements in fitness, health, and increased physical activity (Lynch et al., 2019). There’s a dark side to fitness tracking where compromise, comparison and obsessive behaviours lurk…


The Dangers of fitness tracking

When relentlessly pursuing a goal such as 10,000 steps, it’s easy to lose sight of why you actually bought your fitness tracker. You can become tempted to make compromises in order to reach your daily goals and there comes a point when those compromises can become physically, mentally and socially unhealthy.

A measurement is no longer a measurement when it becomes your primary goal.

Here are some signs that suggest you might need to take a step back from tracking:

1. Pushing your progress too fast

Progress is satisfying, but it is also addictive. It can be tempting to increase your goals too quickly in the hope of speeding up progress. But if pursuing your tracker goals has become a chore, or you’re not being successful at least 45-50% of the time, you’ve probably set your target too high.

2. You can’t exercise without a tracker

Many ‘steppers’ can’t bear to move without their trackers. The idea that 'effort is wasted' because it is not logged on a device is irrational, yet astonishingly powerful. You can easily become overly reliant on devices, and it can cause you to miss workouts, lower your intensity, and lose the point of why you wanted to exercise in the first place.


3. Quantity over quality

A tracker rewards you only for quantity. The temptation therefore is to compromise your movement quality (form) in order to accumulate more steps, calories etc. This risks injuries, and also might encourage you to neglect different areas of your fitness, such as strength training, core stability, mobility and mindfulness.

4. Ignoring or becoming insensitive to your mind and body

When exercising, it is really important to listen to your body. Some days you will feel tired, sore or lethargic and it’s not sensible to push yourself to the limit on these occasions. Your tracker doesn’t take into account how you feel and encourages you to push on and ‘hit your numbers’ regardless. Failing to understand what your body is telling you risks injuries and can damage your mental well-being too.


5. You're constantly making comparisons or are overly competitive

Many trackers encourage you to share your data with the world via social media. This opens you up to making negative, unfair or incomplete comparisons of yourself to others. Alternatively, you might feel the need to ‘prove yourself’ or adopt a “win at all costs” attitude, which can send you spiralling downhill very quickly.

6. Your goals feel easy or inconsequential

The perfect goals are ones that are just manageable. If you’re achieving your tracker goal more than 60% of the time, it’s probably too easy for you. When a goal is too easy, it’s not very exciting and your motivation will quickly dissipate. By all means start off easy, but gradually progress your goal to suit your fitness level. Your goals should be challenging, but achievable.


7. Your exercise feels dull or unrelenting

Variety of the spice of life! Constantly chasing 10,000 steps a day or hitting ‘X’ number of calories every day can become tedious. This is a big reason why many fitness trackers are ditched after the first few weeks. Remember the importance and satisfaction that comes with progress and don’t be afraid to mix your goals up every now and again – you might find something else works better for you.

8. Plateaus and dips are getting the better of you

Progress is not linear; you will always experience plateaus and dips along the way. Because trackers provide so much data, these ‘stalls’ are clear for all to see and are easy to fixate on. Even a momentary lack of progress can be soul destroying, especially if you're really putting the work in. Furthermore, you will not be able to achieve your tracker goal every single day - lapses happen for any number of reasons. When they do, you can be sure your tracker is on hand to point out your dip!


My Advice

I have used fitness trackers for years and I really get a lot out of them. The last thing I want to do is put you off tracking, but, don't let your tracker dictate how you feel. If you're concerned your tracker is becoming too powerful, take it off for a bit whilst you reconnect with what's really important.

Some newer trackers actually limit the amount of data they give you and instead just display your trends over the past few weeks. This helps you avoid direct comparisons and look beyond daily dips to see the bigger picture. Remember, making progress is all about staying on the right trajectory in the long run!

Summary

Fitness trackers are a fantastic way to access real and detailed data about your health and fitness. They help you set short-term goals, keep you accountable and enable you to monitor your progress towards an outcome goal on a daily basis. Trackers should however come with a warning.

Monitoring your every move is not always a healthy approach. Trackers are insensitive to your personal needs, feelings and the unpredictability of everyday life. They can provoke you to exercise beyond your capacity, or encourage you to compromise on other aspects of your life and health in order to appease your statistics and the people who see them. Always keep in mind the bigger picture - use your tracker to keep you moving in the right direction.

For many people tracking their fitness data is the key to success, but that isn’t always the case. Don’t let a form of measurement become your primary fitness goal.


Next week's post (publishes Friday 28th May) is moving into the realms of motor coordination and specifically, a surprisingly common condition called Developmental Coordination Disorder (more commonly known as Dyspraxia). This is an area I have worked in extensively and I'm looking forward to sharing some of my views and experiences for improving coordination skills for children and adults of all abilities.

Reference

C. Lynch, S.Bird, N.Lythgo, I. Selva-Raj. (2019). Changing the Physical Activity Behavior of Adults With Fitness Trackers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, American Journal of Health Promotion, 1(3), DOI: 10.1177/0890117119895204

sport mentality

by dr Lottie miles