As recently as six or seven years ago, I was still estimating the length of my running routes by driving them and reading the odometer. After my runs, I used a program on my graphing calculator that computed my pace per mile based on my time and distance covered. Archaic, I know. These days, I use a GPS watch that gives me all of these numbers and also tells me my speed in real time. The data are tremendously helpful as I train for races, and rarely do I leave the house for a run without my GPS watch.
As helpful as GPS watches and other fitness trackers can be, they also have serious drawbacks. While it is normal to be excited after a great run or disappointed after one that does not go as we had hoped, some people put a concerning level of emphasis on their exercise performance. For example, someone may push through injury or illness in order to attain a certain reading on their device when the healthier play would have been to stop earlier or take a rest day.
Issues with exercise can bleed into food. For example, someone who feels they did not run far enough or fast enough, take enough steps, or burn enough calories might punish themselves by bingeing or restricting their food intake. Someone else might overeat or allow themselves certain foods that are normally restricted after a particularly pleasing exercise session. Some people restrict either way, feeling they do not deserve to eat normally if their exercise was not up to par, while also not wanting to “undo” a good exercise performance by eating. All of these examples and other similar behaviors are red flags of an unhealthy relationship with food and physical activity exacerbated by usage of a fitness tracker.
Furthermore, we must remember that even the best fitness trackers have flaws in their technology. For example, back when Joanne wore a Fitbit (discussed below), it never registered steps she took in the supermarket if her hands were on the grocery cart. When I finished the Newport Marathon earlier this month, my GPS watch reported that I had covered 26.6 miles, which was curious since marathons are 26.2 miles long. As I discussed a couple of years ago, estimates of calories burned can also be wildly inaccurate.
Given the limitations of these devices and the trouble people can find themselves in if the numbers are carrying an unhealthy level of importance in their lives, we best candidly ask ourselves if the pros of fitness trackers really outweigh their cons.
Nearly everywhere you look nowadays, you will see people wearing some sort of activity tracker. Whether it’s a Fitbit, an Apple watch, or a Garmin device, it seems that lots of people are concerned with monitoring their movement from day to day. For a few years (a few years ago), even I wore a Fitbit, and I found myself becoming obsessed with the number of steps I took each day. I remember needing to meet or exceed my goal of 10,000 daily steps, regardless of how I felt physically or mentally. It became such a constant in my life that whenever I took steps without the device, I felt like those steps didn’t really count. If I forgot to wear my Fitbit before a walk or run, the steps I took were automatically negated. Throughout my day, I would often look to my Fitbit to see if I had been “good” that day, to see if I had achieved my goals. It was an obsession!
When I found Health at Every Size® (HAES), something changed for me in regards to physical activity. One of the tenets of HAES is engaging in enjoyable movement that feels good to one’s body. I like to call this “intuitive exercise” (I’m sure that someone else has coined this phrase, but I’m not sure to whom to attribute it!). In my mind, intuitive exercise is engaging in physical activities that one enjoys, i.e., not using physical activity as a way to punish one’s body. Intuitive exercise comes from an internal desire to feel good in one’s body, to participate in sport or activity that nourishes one and makes one feel alive. Intuitive exercise is not prescriptive or punitive – it’s purely for the joy of movement.
Once I figured out what intuitive exercise was, I found that wearing my Fitbit was not really compatible with HAES. For a while, I had been letting a little wristband tell me how much I should move – pretty much the exact antithesis to intuitive exercise! In a way, I liken it to when people feel they need a diet or set of food rules to follow in order to be healthy. Time and time again, we have heard that diets fail 95% of the time, but for some reason, we are convinced that using a set of external guidelines will lead us to diet salvation. But, of course, we know that this isn’t the case, that eating intuitively and trusting our body is truly the best way to achieve a healthier relationship with food and our body.
A number of my patients struggling with eating disorders (ED) wear activity trackers, and I find this to be a particularly troubling trend. Those patients who never had issues with exercise before now are obsessed with the numbers on their Fitbits. Most of the activity trackers also track the number of calories one burns. Even though these calorie estimates are often bogus and inaccurate, people with ED can become fixated on them. Complicating matters, many of these activity trackers can also double as a “smart watch,” meaning that the wearer can use it to browse the internet and send and receive texts, emails, and phone calls. So even if someone just wanted a device to do these “smart” tasks, they would be unable to avoid the activity tracking aspect.
In general, I discourage all of my patients from using these activity monitors, even those without an ED. In my opinion, while some people may be able to use these devices as a motivating tool (i.e., encouraging them to get more physical activity into their day), the majority of people who wear them become obsessive. Those individuals struggling with ED are particularly at risk of developing (or worsening) excessive exercise behaviors, as these devices become tools for ED. Unless one can deactivate the step counter and calorie tracker from a device, I feel these trackers can be incredibly triggering for those struggling with ED or disordered eating.