Fitness tracker and mental health

While I can’t remember when I put my fitness tracker in long-term storage, I certainly remember why: it made me doubt myself.

Like many people, I had started wearing a tracker — in my case, a Fitbit Alta HR — to track my daily steps, as well as heart rate, sleep, and calories burned.

For about 18 months I loved digging into this data and observing trends, but then I noticed a shift: I didn’t see the numbers as a way to work toward my health goals — they became a substitute for myself — awareness .

For example, I woke up awake and rested, but my data indicated I had a terrible night’s sleep. Suddenly I wasn’t so bushy and ready for the day. I’d quit a run thinking I’d crushed it, but my heart rate and calorie burn data said otherwise, so the performance would disappoint.

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

The problem with trackers

A survey of over 1,800 people on fitness tracker use, habits and stress found many benefits of use, including increased activity, but nearly half of people feel anxiety or pressure from tracker data. As a result, 45 percent of this group wore the trackers less often — although many of them felt guilty about not wearing the devices.

“Fitness trackers can measure inactivity, and some of the men and women I review say trackers make their feelings of anxiety and depression worse about their bodies, which further demotivates them,” says Leela Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional Medical Director of Mindpath Health, narrates The world of the runner. “Some of these individuals hide their trackers when they begin to perceive them as reminders of their perceived failures.”

Those who already have anxiety disorders may feel this even more, she adds, and that becomes problematic when that concern increases their heart rate — which the trackers are recording. For people with OCD, trackers can also reinforce compulsions like overtraining or eating disorders, Magavi says.

Even if you don’t have any emotional health issues, trackers could shift your perception in a negative direction, similar to what I’ve experienced. That’s why it helps to take a step back and create more awareness of their use.

Signs it might be time to ditch your tracker

Although I’ve decided to stop using my tracker, it’s possible to take a less drastic step. All you have to do is acknowledge how you use the tracker and, more importantly, how you feel about it.

“A red flag draws too much attention to the numbers,” Rocky Snyder, CSCS, California-based trainer and author of a strength training guide Back to the centertold The world of the runner.

Of course, having goals is beneficial, he says, and trackers make it easy to create them and measure progress toward them.

“The problem starts when people don’t pay attention to how their bodies feel,” he says. “You focus on heart rate, for example, but don’t consider that you might be under more stress or you might have muscle tension or a pain response, all of which can affect that measurement. You need to look at the big picture and not get so myopic about numbers and statistics.”

Another sign your tracker is a mental health barrier is not enjoying your activity, Snyder adds. Despite the expression of almost every runner in a photo taken at a race, this sport is supposed to be fun, remember?

“Don’t let your daily goal distract you from the true, underlying purpose of any program, which is to lead a happier, healthier life,” he says. “If you find yourself mentally consumed by your fitness tracker, try to step away from it and practice being in the moment of the adventure you’re taking your body through.”

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How to make the shift towards self-compassion

Using trackers differently can not only help you make peace with your limitations, but actually benefit you in ways that support your emotional well-being, Magavi says.

“Trackers can help individuals create routines and turn healthy behaviors into positive habits,” she adds. “Any healthy behavior can be perceived as a gain. 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 accomplished and practice self-compassion.”

In general, using it as part of a much broader strategy and staying aware of its implications can keep you from falling into the “data obsession” trap. That way, Magavi says, they’ll feel like assistive technology, motivating you, not defeating you.

With that in mind, it’s likely that I’ll salvage my tracker from the bottom of the junk drawer — and then I’ll use it in a very different way.

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