The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

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Peter Drucker, the famous management consultant is credited with saying, “what gets measured gets managed.” Over the past several years device manufacturers like Fitbit and Garmin have created fitness tracking devices that enable wearers to measure — and ultimately manage — their health. But might some of us unwittingly use fitness data to mismanage our minds and our bodies?

Earlier this year, on Amazon Prime Day, I picked up a Garmin Forerunner 235 for a smoking good price. I had read Gerow’s review of the watch, and tired of carrying my iPhone to record jogs around the neighborhood, I treated myself to a new piece of wearable tech. It’s a fantastic watch and I get a ton of use out of it.

As I began using the watch’s features and accompanying smartphone app, I noticed that some disturbing thoughts started creeping into my head. For starters, the Garmin Connect app allows users to track their body weight over time. I began entering my body weight anytime I stepped on the bathroom scale, and the app helpfully let me know if my weight increased or decreased since the last entry.

After several weight checkins Garmin even built a graph showing my weight over time and I started taking pride in seeing that line go down. What else could I do to make it go even lower: More exercise? Eat less? Exercise and food intake are both good and helpful things to manage for a lot of people — but not if you’re anorexic. According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of anorexia “include trying to maintain a below-normal weight through starvation or too much exercise.”

I’ve been skinny my whole life. As a kid I was teased about it, but at the time it didn’t get to me because I figured that’s just the way I was born. Over the years being thin — and staying thin — became a part of my identity. At some point I guess I decided that if I wasn’t skinny, I wouldn’t be me. I certainly don’t exhibit any of the symptoms of anorexia — I pride myself on the burrito and hot dog eating contests I’ve won and I only exercise 3 times a week if I’m lucky — but my smartphone app now seems capable of pushing me toward developing a serious disorder, encouraging me to count calories and steps like points in a game.

For those whose sense of self worth is tied to fitness or body measurements, owning a fitness tracker can be a bit like an alcoholic taking a sip of gin each night before bed.

“Streaking” is trending among runners and mountain bikers alike, whereby participants attempt to keep up a multi-day streak of a particular physical activity for as long as possible, indefinitely God willing. Smart devices make setting goals and tracking daily activity easy, but is running every day, for example, good for the body? Overuse injuries are a real problem for many athletes, and whether we like it or not, our bodies need rest. Not to mention, it can’t be healthy to go for a ride if you have pneumonia, all in the name of keeping your fitness tracking app happy while your body and spirit are miserable.

My new watch even tracks my sleep each night, giving me a summary of how many hours I slumber. I suppose a lot of folks find this information helpful, but for me, this can be maddening. For starters, I have responsibilities every day that don’t ease up or disappear based on the amount of sleep I had the night before. I could be tempted to tell myself it’s OK to say no to playing with my kids because I didn’t get enough z’s according to my app. Clearly the last thing any of us need is “data” to back up our excuses or to justify negative behaviors.

Beginning in high school I suffered from a very real sense of sleep anxiety. I was always a good student, and I worried that if I didn’t get enough rest each night I wouldn’t be able to perform my best the next day. Serving in the military quickly taught me that yes, I can function and in fact thrive on just a few hours of sleep at night, so personally I’ve been able to move past this. However, having access to sleep data could surely enable sleep anxiety sufferers to become even more stressed and obsessed.

Finally, it should be noted that apps like Strava and Garmin Connect can and do drive some athletes to unhealthy levels of competition, both with themselves and others. In fact, a few have been driven to take risks that ultimately led to their death in pursuit of proving something that most of us would agree is trivial in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, it’s easy to brush this off and say buyer beware, or even to think that none of this will affect us personally. Saying no to fitness trackers is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater since the devices still offer a lot of utility and the potential for positive influence on our lives. It’s also clear that device and software designers are working to minimize the potential harm their products may cause. For example, my Garmin watch flashes a recommended recovery time after each workout, reassuring me that it’s ok — and in fact beneficial — to take two or three days off after a hard ride or run.

At the very least, it’s important to make an honest assessment of our own anxieties and addictions, and to reflect on how a fitness tracking device might enable or encourage the negative thoughts and behaviors that already exist in our lives. After all, it’s up to us to manage our bodies and minds, not our devices.

# Comments

  • C-Lo

    I do understand. When I first started wearing my fitness tracker I started off with an average 8,000 steps a day. The step challenge would automatically increase. Before I knew it I was averaging almost 20,000 steps a day. I became a drill sergeant ant started average about 25,000 steps a day and the step tracker just kept increasing my goal for the day. One wild day I ended up with 44,000 steps and the it wanted me to do more steps the next day. I finally turned the automatic step challenge off. I choose the challenges that Strava and Garmin offer very wisely, and make sure they are safely in my ability.

  • Oldandrolling

    I do not wear a tracker. I do take one on most of my rides to monitor my pace and distance. I would never wear a fitness tracker or any other type of tracker 24/7. Especially one that tells me I am not doing the right things. The last thing I need is is an AI device telling me how to live my life.

  • Richard Shoop

    Great article Jeff. There is definitely a fine line between the benefits these devices offer, and the problems they can create in a person’s life. I think you need to establish clear parameters on how you will use the device before buying it. Wearing them 24/7 can be unhealthy. I don’t own one myself, and have no intention of buying one. I have a low-buck wired bike computer that gives me basic ride data I chart in Excel to measure progress and help with bike set-up. I know what I need to do to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I don’t need electronic devices hounding me about it.

  • Jeff Barber

    C-Lo, this is interesting. It didn’t fit this article, but I notice my own recommended step goal tends to shift DOWN over time. I think the default is something like 10,000 steps and since I don’t hit that very often, it has shifted my goal to its current level — just 7,500 steps. How’s that for moving the goal posts! Clearly the algorithms are designed to manipulate us in ways we don’t even understand.

    It’s fascinating to consider the psychology that’s baked into these designs. It seems the step goal is meant to strike the right balance between motivating (always make it higher than your current average) but also attainable (not TOO high so you won’t give up). We can work out the math for this easy enough, but the implications can be far reaching and multifaceted.

  • jgmtb

    I like the garmin watch, but I think it’s definitely good to use it as a tool, and not let it dictate your life choices. I like to wear the watch instead of bringing my phone on short runs, or to track shorter fitness-oriented rides (when i only have a few hours and i’m curious how much of a workout I am getting) and / or to save my smartphone battery. The sleep tracker can be interesting, sleep plays such a big part in recovery it’s helpful to know where you are; Taking a quick gander over the last week can give me an idea if I’ve got a deficit or if I’ve been getting enough z’s. Also, working a desk all day, the “move” alert and step tracker give me a bit of reminder / motivation to get up and stretch the legs. However useful the data points are, it should be up to us to draw conclusions about how we let them affect our decisions. I purposely don’t track a lot of my activities, and wear an analogue watch some days. I find that by leaving this “gap” in the information my watch is getting I’m able to break out of any sort of streak or illusion that my watch really knows my every movement, and it’s up to me to fill in the missing pieces and listen to my body.

  • rmap01

    Interesting perspective Jeff. I bought my first Garmin watch when they came out with heart rate monitors years ago. I’ve always been somewhat of a data geek when it comes to stuff like this. As a runner at that time, being able to track not just pace, but bpm, provided some really good insights for training. Having an objective measure of effort vs “perceived” effort was eye opening. The amount of available data since then has only grown although the utility of many of these factors is still unclear. Then add 24hr trackers to the list and you open up a whole new pathway of data tracking.

    I draw a big distinction between Activity-based Tracking (e.g. Garmin Edge) vs All-day Trackers (e.g. FitBit, Applewatch). For anyone that is looking to improve their cycling/running times or is competitive either with others (or even just themselves) recording your activity with an Activity-based tracker is IMO a must. It’s provides insights into your performance that are objective. Linking that to Strava or other apps makes it all the more fun and motivating. While it’s great to know how my performance compares to others I most enjoy competing against my (younger) self to see if I can PR a segment or lap. For someone that thrives on fitness and healthy (self)competition, certain of those activities now have a purpose that extends beyond “just getting out there”.

    All-day trackers are a different animal altogether. While you can track an activity, the level of detail provided by most watches is IMO not on par with activity-based trackers that are designed for that sole purpose. They provide an additional set of metrics such as step count, stand time, calorie burn, sleep data, etc, etc and they also are in many ways an extension of your phone. But by wearing one, you are basically agreeing to let Apple or Google immerse themselves into your life in a fairly profound way. Despite what their privacy policies say, they know everything about you: where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you’ve eaten (if you logged it), your health metrics (including EKG for AW) and virtually everything else about you when paired with your phone data.

    I actually own and use a Garmin Edge for cycling and a FR for running. I also wear an Apple Watch. But that’s because I’m a data geek. For anyone choosing one of these devices I think it’s important to assess what your needs are. It’s also important to do a bit of a realistic self-assessment relative to your psychological propensities. Being motivated in a healthy, positive way for something you WANT to do is very different than feeling like you NEED to do something either because your device said you should or because of unhealthy competition. In many ways, this is very much like today’s social pandemic where so many people believe they need to keep up with the “virtual lives” of those people they follow on social media. Kinda reminds me of all the parents who bought their kids video games because they were watching too much TV.

  • Florian Doemer

    You all have some very interesting perspectives on these fitness trackers. Thing is, they are a tool, nothing more or less and they provide information. What you do with that info or how you use it is up to you. Sure, they make competing and comparing to your friends easier but that’s why you have to go into it with a healthy mindset and understanding.

    These devices don’t manipulate people into doing bad things, and they are fitness trackers so of course it will set goals that are higher than your current average. It’s not much of a “goal” to hit if you’re already there without trying. So many here focus on just the part where this is technology so it must create these problems, but long before technology, if anyone trained for anything it gave them goals. Sure, you might say that these all day trackers are giving you goals even when you’re not training, but of course they do, because so many of us lead these sedentary lifes where we barely move and you generally buy a fitness tracker when you’re trying to get fit, not stay st your average. They also offer the option of turning off the tracking pieces you dont want and you can turn off the automatic goal setting, turning the app into a more sophisticated spreadsheet. Again, these trackers are fantastic devices and it’s frustrating to see so many negative comments when all of them complaints are self inflicted and could easily be changed.

  • rmap01

    @ Florian_Doemer Whereas I generally agree with your sentiment I’ve come to realize over the years that things aren’t always so cut and dry for many people. There are a wide spectrum of mental health issues that are increasingly prevalent in our society. A study in 2016 showed that 1 in every 6 Americans takes a psychotropic medication to address issues related to anxiety, depression, etc. It’s probably even higher now. Many studies have demonstrated a link between various technologies and mental health (yes, there are some positive impacts but many negatives). To me, technology (or even data) can be like an addiction for some. In healthy, manageable doses it can have positive effects. I love it… the more the better. But for others that become obsessed or stressed out by it, it can have unhealthy consequences. Telling someone in the latter category to just ignore it or shut it off is, in my mind, like telling someone with an anxiety disorder to “just don’t worry about it”. They know they shouldn’t but can’t control it. In the more extreme cases it’s kind of like like telling an alcoholic to “just not drink”. Whereas I am fortunate in that I do not deal with such issues I know a number of people that do.

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