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Wearable fitness trackers: Are they ruining our mental health?

Some experts suggest they could heighten anxiety and lower motivation. But it all depends on how you use them.

fitness trackers and mental health
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Although I don’t remember when I put my fitness tracker into long-term storage, I certainly recall the reason: it made me doubt myself.

Like many people, I’d started wearing a tracker – in my case, a Fitbit Alta HR – as a way to track my daily steps as well as heart rate, sleep and calorie burn.

For about 18 months, I loved digging into this data and looking at trends, but then I noticed a shift: I didn’t see the numbers as a way to work toward my health goals – they’d become a replacement for my own self-awareness.

For example, I’d wake up feeling alert and well rested, but my data suggested I’d had a terrible night of sleep. Suddenly, I wasn’t so bushy tailed and ready for the day anymore. I’d finish a run thinking I’d crushed it, but my heart rate and calorie burn data said otherwise, so that accomplishment would turn to disappointment.

Pretty soon, I started checking my numbers to determine how to feel, rather than the other way around. That’s not the fault of Fitbit, or any brand of tracker, but it was enough to make me ditch the device altogether. And it turns out I’m not alone.

The trouble with trackers

One survey of over 1,800 people on fitness tracker usage, habits and stress found plenty of benefits from usage, including increased activity, but nearly half of the people said they felt anxiety or pressure as a result of tracker data. That led 45 percent of that group to wear the trackers less often – even though many of them felt guilty for not wearing the devices.

'Fitness trackers can measure inactivity, and some of the men and women I evaluate say that trackers exacerbate their feelings of anxiety and depression related to their body, which further demotivates them,' Leela Magavi, M.D., a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Mindpath Health, tells Runner’s World. 'Some of these individuals hide their trackers as they begin to perceive them as reminders of their perceived failure.'

Those who already have anxiety disorders may feel this even more deeply, she adds, and that becomes problematic when this level of concern spikes their heart rates, which the trackers record. For those with obsessive compulsive disorders, trackers can also heighten compulsions, such as overtraining or engaging in disordered eating, says Magavi.

Even if you don’t have emotional health challenges, trackers could shift your perception in a negative direction. That’s why it’s helpful to take a step back and reflect on how you're using your tracker and how it's making you feel.

Signs it might be time to break up with your tracker

Although I chose to stop using my tracker, it’s possible to take a less drastic step.

'One red flag is focusing too much attention on the numbers,' Rocky Snyder, C.S.C.S., California-based trainer and author of strength training guide Return to Center, tells Runner’s World.

Of course it’s beneficial to have goals, he says, and trackers make it easy to create those and gauge progress toward them.

'The trouble starts when people many not take into consideration how their body is feeling,' he says. 'For example, you’re focusing on heart rate but not keeping in mind that you might be under more stress or have muscle tension or a pain response, which can all affect that reading. You need to look at the bigger picture and not become so myopic on the numbers and stats.'

Another sign that your tracker is a mental-health hindrance is that you’re not enjoying your activity, Snyder adds. Despite the expression of nearly every runner in a photo taken at a race, this sport is actually supposed to be fun, remember?

'Don’t let your daily goal distract you from the true, underlying purpose of every program, which is to live a happier and healthier life,' he says. 'If you find that you are mentally consumed by your fitness tracker, try leaving it behind and practice being in the moment of whatever adventure you’re guiding your body through.'

How to make the shift toward self-compassion

Using trackers in a different way can not only help you make peace with their limitations, but actually benefit you in ways that support your emotional wellbeing, says Magavi.

'Trackers can help individuals create routines and transform healthy behaviours into positive habits,' she adds. 'Every healthy behaviour can be perceived as a win. For those who struggle with self-motivation, as we all do from time to time, accountability is key, and trackers can help you see how much you’ve achieved and practice self-compassion.'

In general, using them as part of a much larger strategy and staying aware of their effects could keep you from veering into the “obsessing over data” trap. That way, Magavi says, they’ll feel like supportive technology that keeps you motivated instead of defeated.

With this in mind, it’s likely I’ll rescue my tracker from the depths of the junk drawer – and I’ll use it in a much different way when I do.

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