Inactivity is a common problem for Americans, many of whom work office jobs that have them sitting for the bulk of the day. Many diseases have been linked to “sitting disease,” and health organizations continue to stress the importance of staying active throughout the day.
One of the things that has helped many get on their feet is fitness trackers. These trackers—such as Fitbit and Garmin—keep track of the steps you take each day, help you set and celebrate goals, and can even monitor certain health measures, like heart rate. (Here are other benefits of fitness trackers, according to a trainer.)
For many, fitness trackers have made all the difference in motivating them to get off the chair, which could help them fend off diseases linked to a sedentary lifestyle.
However, recent stories have circulated in the media about fitness trackers having a negative effect on mental health. The trackers allegedly caused some users to become obsessive about the numbers on their wrists—to a detrimental point.
“Anything that asks us to meet a goal can cause anxiety, particularly when we are not meeting that goal,” says Taryn A. Myers, PhD, who specializes in risk and protective factors for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. (Here are symptoms of an anxiety disorder to look for.)
Dr. Myers adds, “The constant reminders that trackers give—some will buzz to remind you to get up and walk around, for example—can continually draw our attention to the numbers we are trying to reach and can make us feel like we are failing if we are not able to get up and walk around.”
Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, knows this feeling firsthand. “As a registered dietitian specializing in weight loss, you would think that I would be a huge fan of fitness trackers,” she says. “From personal experience, I can say that the day I lost my Fitbit was one of the most liberating of my life.”
Like Harris-Pincus, many claim their trackers led to obsessive behavior, negative self-judgment, and perfectionism. “For me, [trackers] became a way to judge myself and not in a positive manner,” says Harris-Pincus, founder of NutritionStarringYOU. “I spent a ton of time wandering around my house trying to squeeze in extra steps, even at 11:30 PM.”
To put it simply: It’s not that fitness trackers cause anxiety, but certain people may be prone to feeling anxiety while using fitness trackers—a subtle but important difference.
For those who start to experience these obsessive thoughts about exercise, it could put them at risk for something known as obligatory or compulsive exercise. Although it’s not an official diagnosis, compulsive exercise is a common health issue under the eating disorder umbrella that causes the following symptoms, according to the National Eating Disorder Association:
Exercising at inappropriate times or settings
Exercising despite injuries or health problems
Feeling intense irritability, guilt, or distress if unable to exercise
Maintaining rigid exercise routines regardless of weather or illness
Feeling discomfort or guilt while sedentary or resting
Exercising to “get rid of” calories, which is a type of purging
Keeping exercise habits secret or hidden
Or abandoning loved ones or other hobbies in order to exercise.
In other words, when someone is exercising compulsively, they do it because they feel like they have to, and not because they are genuinely motivated to exercise for their health or enjoyment.
“Obligatory exercise, in turn, is related to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors, not to mention physical overuse injuries,” says Dr. Myers. “In fact, excessive exercise is one of the possible ways that patients with bulimia nervosa try to get rid of calories—it’s not just throwing up.” Learn more myths about eating disorders here.
Who Is at Risk?
While it’s possible to experience negative effects of fitness trackers, your Fitbit isn’t necessarily “bad” for you. After all, fitness trackers have been nothing but positive for the majority of Americans who’ve used them. So what’s the deal?
Whether or not fitness trackers will add value to your life depends a lot on your personality and character traits. “People who are already naturally anxious or dissatisfied with their bodies will be much more vulnerable [to misusing fitness trackers],” says Dr. Myers. She adds that people who already have eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder will also be more at risk.
Despite the recent slew of news stories criticizing fitness trackers, there’s no reason to ditch yours if it’s having a positive effect on your life. Just check in regularly with how you’re using your tracker. It should make you feel motivated—not guilty or worried.
Says Dr. Myers, “If you continue to walk even after you should be asleep or instead of socializing with your friends just to make your daily goal, you should think about how it might be interfering with your life.” (After all, there are many health benefits of socializing as well.)