Confession: there’s a Garmin on my wrist while I’m writing this.
The unnecessary–yet addicting–fitness tracker lifestyle is something that contributes to this brutal irony taking place at my desk. Although fitness trackers like Fitbits, Garmins, and Apple Watches are marketed to a community of individuals looking to improve their overall health, these devices have the potential to sway us in the other direction.
When a “Move” notification pops up on my watch during class, I’m tempted (and often convinced) to take a quick walk to the bathroom, the water fountain, or any location to temporarily silence that mocking reminder. And what are we gaining from these little spurts of activity? The calorie burn is negligible, the disruption is annoying, and I feel a sense of embarrassment that I listen to a little device on my wrist instead of my body.
It’s one of the many ways that fitness trackers can control our lives in a way that doesn’t promote our overall well-being–but it’s healthy, right? It might be time for the fitness world to take a collective step back from tracking our steps, counting our calories, and measuring our sleep patterns. Here are a few reasons why kicking these habits may contribute to an even healthier lifestyle than the ones that these fitness trackers are claiming to preserve.
They aren’t that accurate after all
How accurate are fitness trackers?Now this may come as a surprise, but fitness watches aren’t as accurate as we assume. They are primarily based on our heart rate so, yes, they can tell that we burn more calories while running than sitting on the couch, but they don’t take into account many other activities. Weight lifting, for instance, burns few calories according to the watch (since our heart rate is relatively low) although we still expend a significant amount of energy during resistance training.
Furthermore, a Stanford research study tested different fitness watch models and found that even the most accurate (Fitbit Surge) was still off heart rate and calorie expenditure by 27 percent. It’s mildly humiliating to realize that we are basing our lifestyle choices on false data.
Disordered habits can stem
Although it may not be one’s intention, fixating on numbers can lead to an obsessive and impulsive trap.
For instance, eating disorders or disordered eating habits can stem from the fitness tracker’s calorie count. Often if one is concerned about their calories burned, they’ll likely be tracking their calories consumed as well. A 2017 study found that college students who use fitness trackers were more likely to also experience eating disorder symptoms for both Binge Eating Disorder and Anorexia. Extreme calorie counting and deficits are not only damaging to your body, but also can be crippling to your mental health. Fitness trackers, in these environments, can mask disordered habits as “healthy” when they actually degrade one’s wellness.
We look like a bunch of Spy Kids
Taking a step back, we look ridiculous. I can’t count how many times I’ve looked at pictures from a night out and kicked myself for wearing a RUNNING WATCH to a BAR (no wonder I’m single). If we have the autonomy to slip them off to compare watch tans, we also have the power to replace them with a cute bracelet or just let our wrists be naked–go crazy.
What CAN they do?
Beyond promoting an arguably “healthy” lifestyle, fitness watches are primarily used to record workouts. Based on our heart rate and GPS tools, fitness watches can tell us everything from calories burned to distance run to cadence per step. It’s impressive. It also gives elite athletes something to measure their fitness by and can be useful for those training to hit a specific pace in their next race or lose a few pounds. My watch even has an app that it connects to Bluetooth to illustrate my sleeping patterns and activity accomplishments on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
Specifically for sleep measurements, WHOOP devices provide users with extensive tools to maximize their recovery. Their services have been found to have the most accurate data; however, their energy expenditure figures still lack reliability.
Is it all too much?
This data isn’t necessarily bad—their purpose is to help develop our fitness and health, after all. However, fixating on these numbers can be distracting during workouts and discouraging at times, too.
For instance, I run Division 1 cross country and track at Northwestern University. My coach is a firm believer in “listening to our bodies” when we train so that we maximize our recovery and purpose for each day. Sometimes when I listen to my body—instead of my watch—I still get those “pings” every mile that make me doubt my effort level for the given pace. Therefore, it’s often worth it to just take off the watch and enjoy a workout without the frequent glances to your wrist.
My experience isn’t unique. A study by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business found that tracking steps reduces one’s enjoyment of activity. It was also identified that this trend has the potential to extend beyond a given activity, and make an individual less likely to do the given activity in the future.
Wellness isn’t meant to be measured
The other possibility here is relinquishing other areas of wellness to achieve your fitness “goals” (because how accurate are they really?). 10,000 steps a day is time consuming. 3,000 calories burned is exhausting. Oftentimes sleep, mental health, and nutrition can fall out of the equation when these workout intentions become the priority. In other words, our fitness watches don’t promote a healthy lifestyle if we use them to abuse other aspects of wellness.
Fitness trackers can’t capture wellness simply because wellness isn’t meant to be numerically measured–or compared. No matter how physically healthy the numbers may claim you are; your emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual health could be at serious risk. Why do we so closely listen to devices that only promote one aspect of our wellness, while our bodies and minds crave so much more than “fitness”?
An unintentional anecdote
The amusing (and perhaps convenient) reality is that my watch band snapped during a run after I finished this draft. I now find myself amid a case study that I’ve ironically prepared myself for while researching for the article. After a few hours of glancing at my bare wrist to check the time, I’ve started to adjust to this freeing lifestyle. The spell isn’t broken by any means, but I do feel a lot more at peace with listening to what my body wants and needs–a feeling I hope others can experience once they realize, it too, is time for them to ditch their watch.