The beginning of the year is always a time of hopeful promises and quiet fitness goals. As we head out in our droves for a daily dose of exercise, as do our trusty fitness trackers, spurring us on and helping us to meet those New Year targets. But is there a fine line where our faithful friendship with our fitness companion becomes toxic?
Wearable tech has come a long way since Fitbit launched its first tracker in 2009. Over a decade later, 37.6 million millennials now rely on their fitness tracker to spur them on to hit their workout goals. But research has shown that what may seem like a harmless aid to encourage us to swap our loungewear for lycra can actually induce anxiety and negative self talk.
Do fitness trackers help or hinder?
It's undeniable that access to your metrics at the touch of a button is beneficial and can certainly motivate us to run further, cycle faster, or walk more. But with the added lifestyle functions such as contactless payments, Spotify playlists, and weather forecasts of newer models such as Fitbit's new Charge 4 release, there's little respite from the numbers. "I'm a huge fan of fitness trackers — the more data we have, the more we can customise the training," Lee Mullins, founder of Workshop Gymnasium, told POPSUGAR. "I've definitely seen a spike in clients using monitors lately. But, inevitably, with every piece of tech that provides data, sadly I have seen some become too obsessed with the numbers. This is why I like to get to know them before we get into the different methods of tracking their progress."
With a strong dose of dopamine (the feel good hormone), it's easy to be seduced every time your wearable tech congratulates you on a goal smashed or a distance met. "There are many dangers associated with fitness trackers," Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder of My Online Therapy warned. "It's a way of self-evaluating — how well we sleep, how well we exercise, etc. Although it makes us more mindful of our bodies, we can become too reliant on them."
When does passion become obsession?
Sure, used in the correct way, fitness trackers can give you the nudge you need to lace up and an incentive to push us out of our comfort zone. But when our fitness trackers start to guide our fitness decisions and provoke feelings of guilt at skipping workouts or put us in competition with our last performance, we soon dread those prompts and feel pressured to get those steps in. Sound familiar?
"If you start to witness negative talk in relation to the data then it may be better to start to use some other ways of tracking your performance."
"Anything that gives us feedback about how we're progressing can lead us to make comparisons about times when we've done better," Dr Touroni explained. "It also opens up avenues for comparing to other people and criticising ourselves when we fall off the wagon. There's also a reduction in mindfulness because if you're obsessively counting steps and worried about the end goal, you can't appreciate the beauty of the surroundings."
Catching your internal dialogue and taking stock of your behavioural patterns is key to knowing when to quit. "If you start to witness negative talk in relation to the data, then it may be better to start to use some other ways of tracking your performance," Mullins said. "The most common sign is overtraining leading to injury. As humans we've been ingrained with this notion that more is better, and when you have data, people are inclined to outperform."
How to have a healthier relationship with your fitness tracker
If your tech has gone from a supportive friend to a toxic dictator, it could be time to tap into how your body feels holistically. "Instead of focusing on hitting a specific calorie burn, it may be a healthier approach to focus on going for 3 x 10 minute walks a day and getting good quality sleep," Mullins said. "This approach is more focused on developing healthier habits versus focusing on just the numbers, which are redundant if we're fatigued." Dr Touroni concurred and suggested taking a good hard look at your relationship with your progress. "Look at how much of the day you spend looking at your fitness tracker and comparing data, and ask yourself how anxious you are about the metrics of the tracker. If you are spending an inordinate amount of time obsessing over it, then try spending a few weeks away from it."