Fitness trackers are all the rage today and are rapidly catching on among fitness enthusiasts. The idea is simple: you wear some kind of watch, tag, or belt clip and as a result you are given feedback regarding all kinds of data points relating to your fitness and your health – including your heart rate, your steps taken, the quality of your sleep and even your stress levels in some cases.
And while some might be eager to call ‘fad’ on the whole movement, there’s no denying that the devices can be very useful when used correctly. Fitness trackers help us to become more aware of just how much (or how little!) we move and exercise, they let us see how our health is improving over time and what is having the biggest effect on that.
But while all this can be very helpful, could it also be possible that fitness trackers may also have negative effects?
Well yeah… otherwise this would be a mighty short article…
Let’s take a look at some of those potential downsides then!
One of the first big downsides of constantly wearing a fitness tracker is that it can lead you to second guess your health and fitness to the extent that some problems might actually end up seeming worse than they really are.
So for instance, if you were to have a poor night’s sleep but not realize it, you might well find that you actually perform better during the day than you would have if your attention were drawn to the fact. When we’re aware that we’ve slept badly, we can find ourselves fixating on that fact and the ‘nocebo’ (negative placebo) effect kicks in leaving us feeling even more groggy and tired.
The same can go for a high heart rate – the moment you know you have a high heart rate, you suddenly start wondering what’s wrong with you and this can ironically even have the effect of increasing your heart rate even further!
And what if you have three nights in a row where you have bad sleep? At this point, you might start to panic that you’re not getting enough sleep which in turn could have more negative health effects.
Being constantly aware of your lack of sleep, your lack of activity, or elevated heart rate can be a constant source of stress and anxiety and this can again end up causing more harm than good in the long-term.
For those who believe in the positive benefits of mindfulness, constant health tracking could potentially be seen as working against this mental state.
When you go to the gym or go for a run, trackers can be used to give you a lot of data and feedback about your performance and your body. When used well, this can teach you more about your body and can help you to become more in-tune with what it is telling you.
But at the same time, this can also actually cause you to become somewhat detached from your body and from what it’s telling you. In other words, when you spend the whole time staring at your wrist, you’re not going to be as engaged with what your body is actually telling you. You won’t be focusing as much on the workout either and your head won’t be purely ‘in the game’. In short, all this can lead to you being less effective and even enjoying your training less overall.
One more problem is simply that most fitness trackers are a little unwieldy. I’ve been wearing the Microsoft Band for a while now and while it’s well designed, it also leaves a bit of a mark on my wrist over time and has caught my fiance’s hair a few times in bed.
Even for trackers that have less of an obvious impact on your body, this can still be a problem. The reality is that you’re looking at wearing these devices 24/7… forever. And that is really quite a commitment.
Believe it or not, fitness tracking can be highly addictive. Once you start to see the numbers coming in and your performance improve, it can be very difficult to let go of that. And once you have collected several months’ worth of data, you can get quite anal about continuing to collect more of that data. This can even get to the point where you feel distressed if ever you miss a day or you run out of charge.
If you were to be someone with an already addictive personality – perhaps someone at risk of body dysmorphia or eating disorders, it’s easy to imagine that this could compound that problem.
To ram home some of these points, let’s imagine that your fitness tracker were to be stop working properly. Imagine the heart rate monitor were to stop working properly and to start constantly telling you that your heart rate was elevated and unhealthy.
Assuming that the device was working, you would then start trying to do things to solve the problem: such as practicing meditation, sleeping more avoiding stress… You might even turn down invitations to go out. Perhaps you’d start avoiding exercise. And the whole thing would be very stressful – it could actually lead to health problems.
This is a real danger with fitness trackers – and especially when you consider that they actually aren’t all perfectly accurate and that they only provide small glimpse at our health without giving us the full picture.
So what does all this mean? Does it mean you should get rid of fitness trackers and forget the whole idea? Not at all; it simply means that we should be careful not to become too dependent and that we should learn to occasionally have a day at the gym without them.