Fitness Trackers Have the Potential to Make us Crazy

Fitness tracking devices and apps can encourage positive, but also negative thoughts and behaviors.

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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.

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