The prevalence of technology in fitness has been incredibly rapid. This is what makes studying how it impacts our psychological health so invaluable. Fitness trackers such as watches are used by athletes of all levels.
These devices utilise biological feedback such as heart rate in addition to movement to provide users with insight into their health (Wright and Keith, 2014). Those just getting into fitness love these devices as they provide quantitative feedback into how they are progressing towards their goals. Moreover, having this constant recall and reflection about daily activity (and inactivity time) has been thought to promote positive behaviour change over a prolonged period of time (Stagier et al, 2016).
However, there are growing concerns over the negative psychological impacts of using fitness trackers. Research suggests that some individuals appear to become obsessed over the data and numbers, which may not always be accurate, but lead to negative long-term psychological effects (Blackstone and Hermann, 2020).
Blackstone and Hermann (2020) asked university students to report on their experience with their fitness trackers, 70% of the students reported engaging in certain compensatory behaviours to reach a step goal while 50% reported doing compensatory behaviours to reach a caloric goal. Experiencing these maladaptive patterns as a result of fitness trackers in combination with increased internal stress also removes one of the principal purposes of doing exercise, which is to feel good internally and externally. Compensatory behaviours observed in these students involves increasing exercise the next day as well as decreasing food intake.
This finding was also observed in a study involving 200 women (Duus and Cooray, 2017). This internal pressure to reach daily targets was so prevalent, that many reported that their ‘daily routines were controlled by their watch’. Additionally, participants felt internal pressure due to worrying about what others would think about their run when they uploaded it to various platforms, and in turn, finding exercising less enjoyable. Concurrently, if they did not have their watch on, they felt like it ‘didn’t count’ or just felt less motivated in general.
Experiencing these maladaptive patterns as a result of fitness trackers in combination with increased internal stress also removes one of the principal purposes of doing exercise, which is to feel good internally and externally. Compensatory behaviours observed in these students involves increasing exercise the next day as well as decreasing food intake.
These studies highlight a critical problem with fitness trackers in the sense that there are addictive. We get attached to the numbers and to what others think, but forget about the whole purpose of why we exercise in the first place. Intentionally changing routes to accumulate more steps, or eating less because we didn’t quite manage to hit our daily goal, seems a bit ridiculous when one really reflects on it.
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In addition to these studies, I conducted my own survey on Instagram asking my followers about their own personal relationships with their fitness trackers. Whereas a lot of people reported how they were motivating, great for tracking progress and seeing what others do, a lot of people reported that they had detrimental effect to their mental health (see images below).
One answer I would particularly like to highlight is the individual who says they feels like the tracker is great during her ‘hard block’ of training; but hates it during the ‘off season’. This again highlights this dependency to receiving positive feedback from the tracker instead of being active for our own health/goals. It also suggests that we may be using them as a comparison, and when we do more than others, we feel better about it. However, research on this is yet to be done, thus no conclusions can be drawn from this.
In conclusion, fitness trackers provide users with awareness of what is going on inside their bodies, however they may not always have positive outcomes. Findings suggest that some individuals create a dependency to their fitness trackers that result in executing compensatory behaviours. Moreover, this may lead to creating a negative relationship with exercise in the long run as well as negative impacting the individual psychologically. Although fitness trackers are not inherently bad, and lay actually be really valuable to certain athletes, this all depends how they are used and critically, on individual differences.
By Anne-Sophie Pierre – @annesophie.pierre
30th November 2021
- Blackstone, S. R., & Herrmann, L. K. (2020). Fitness wearables and exercise dependence in college women: considerations for university health education specialists. American Journal of Health Education, 51(4), 225-233.
- Duus, R., Cooray, M., & Page, N. (2017). Agentic technology: The impact of activity trackers on user behavior. In Creating marketing magic and innovative future marketing trends (pp. 315-322). Springer, Cham.
- Stragier, J., Abeele, M. V., Mechant, P., & De Marez, L. (2016). Understanding persistence in the use of online fitness communities: comparing novice and experienced users. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 34-42.
- Wright, R., & Keith, L. (2014). Wearable technology: If the tech fits, wear it. Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries, 11(4), 204-216.