It’s been a little over a decade since fitness trackers as we know them hit the mainstream market. While pedometers and nutrition diaries have been around for forever (at least in the perspective of a “millennial”), more technologically advanced gadgets are relatively new and much more accurate.
This is good, right? The more specific and precise our trackers are, the better we can manage our weight and our health.
But what if the estimation involved in old-school products is actually a better approach? What if watching too closely can actually harm us rather than help us?
This is the reality for many people, as researchers are now beginning to realize. While Fitbits and the like sound great in theory, they can actually encourage pretty unhealthy habits amongst users– especially if those people have a history of disordered eating or stringent dieting.
The Risks of Fitness Trackers
One reason for this is the social and often competitive nature of fitness trackers. Messages sent between friends comparing steps walked in a day, Facebook notifications about acquaintances reaching their fitness goals, public posts featuring “clean eating” meals.
Accountability and encouragement can be healthy when adopting general lifestyle changes, but number crunching and oversharing can quickly turn dangerous.
Even if you’ve opted out of the public sharing option that Fitbit, Jawbone and other programs offer, comparison is not elusive. We often compare ourselves to ourselves even more than we do to others.
If you’re a goal-oriented and highly driven person, this may result in pushing yourself too hard and ignoring your body’s cues. Health cannot be tested by numbers alone (as years of BMI research has indicated), yet many dieters and health professionals alike fall prey to this trap.
Just as weight does not necessarily indicate health, suggested calories do not indicate your body’s actual hunger levels and energy needs; energy burned does not indicate how much you are “allowed” to eat or how guilty you should feel.
When you rely on numbers to facilitate your body positivity and ideas of personal health, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Failing to meet your standards can lead to depression and negative self-talk, which will ultimately end up sabotaging your efforts.
Meanwhile, going overboard in the other direction to exceed your fitness goals can cause you to become dependent on the “high” of target achievement, which also leads to down periods if you’re not able to maintain those standards.
What We Can Do
If you are predisposed to eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive behavior, fitness trackers may not be for you. And even if you have no history of past restriction, these tendencies may still be triggered once you start tracking.
There are, of course, instances where weight must be managed and tracking food and fitness activity is a viable way to do so. In this situation, it’s recommended to get professional guidance to ensure you are meeting the correct targets.
You should also focus on how your body is feeling, what it is craving, what your hunger and energy levels are, and where your physical confidence stands rather than only using your app as a benchmark of health.
Humans are so individualized, so our approach to health and weight maintenance must be just as holistic. Unfortunately, fitness and nutrition trackers have not yet reached this point, and should not be fully relied upon at this point.
Until we figure out a way to specialize their settings to suit each unique user and their needs, they should serve as nothing more than a guideline. If you use a Fitbit or similar device and have started to notice yourself becoming an obsessive tracker, perhaps it’s time to stop counting and start feeling out what your body needs.
Have you had any triggering experiences with fitness trackers? What helped you overcome the situation?
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