I've never obsessed over video games or puzzles. Whether it's an iPhone app, Xbox game or crossword, I unapologetically abandon ship once I get too stumped. But when it comes to steps, reps, calories or even my resting heart rate (an impressive sub 50 bpm, thanks to my genetics), that's a game I never give up — until recently, that is.
Now, I know that fitness trackers are never 100 percent accurate. But I considered that irrelevant as long as the metrics moved in the positive (positive being a relative term) direction. I structured my workouts around optimizing these numbers — I wanted to level up every week, if not every day.
Essentially, I expected my data to be perfect and was willing to sacrifice my sleep and social life to attain this goal. Despite that I trained before and after work, my full-time desk job made the levels impossible to beat, and I started to plateau.
Long story of self-discovery short: I began to realize (and am continuing to learn) that "perfection" has no finish line and this game had no final level to beat. And it took a hernia scare — luckily, I'm hernia-free — to shake me into reality.
The Downside to Fitness Tracking
Considering 40 percent of American adults own an exercise tracker (and more than half of them wear it daily), according to a survey by Researchscape International, I wasn't surprised to learn my experience was not a one-off. A simple Google search provides pages of similarly worded results all pointing to the potentially addictive effects of fitness tracking.
While fitness tracking can be extremely beneficial, it can become risky or addicting depending on the user's mindset, according to Hillary Cauthen, a clinical sports psychologist who has encountered this issue before. Although the data points are objective numbers, it can be easy to attach a level of self-worth to the metrics.
Many fitness trackers are also social media compatible, allowing users to post or share progress with friends. Social media sharing can be motivating but also detrimental when it comes to fitness tracking, according to Cauthen. The likes or comments spike a satisfying dopamine rush in the brain. But before long, users compare themselves to others, causing a decrease in confidence.
Not only can obsessive tracking harm your self-image, it can harm your relationship with fitness and exercise as a whole, says Meghan Takacs, a certified personal trainer at Performix house and founder of the app #RunWithMeg. Exercise becomes an obligation, rather than an enjoyable, stress-busting activity.
"If you're too attached to a fitness tracker, or track calories too much, you can lose your love of working out," says Takacs. "Instead, it can lead to obsessive behavior, which leads to stress."
Restructuring Metrics for Optimal Performance
While it can be easy to attach emotions to numbers, fitness tracking data can be extremely useful when it comes to performance and overall health if you can use it objectively. However, this requires restructuring your metrics, explains Cauthen.
Rather than focusing on the numbers on your watch, pay attention to signals in your body, Cauthen recommends. "Think of a lot more body awareness and emotional awareness to check in with yourself," says Cauthen. "If you're feeling crappy, allow yourself to feel crappy and just be happy you moved your body. We don't do that enough."
It's undeniable that physical activity is numbers-driven: the miles you run, the reps you lift. But tuning back in with your body and emotions will not only promote a healthier relationship with fitness, but ultimately boost performance, Takacs says.
"Fitness is so much more than weight loss and counting superficial things," says Takacs. "If you want to lose weight, or become a better athlete, you need to know how your body responds to activity and sleep. That is crucial in terms of success."
What to Do About Obsessive Fitness Tracking
Unlike a video game, real-life progress, especially when it comes to health and fitness, isn't linear. There's no final level to beat and eventually, you will encounter setbacks or plateaus. While it's easier said than done, restructuring your mindset and metrics can set you up for long-term success.
If you feel that you're developing an addictive relationship with fitness tracking, it may be time to turn to a friend or professional and give the watch a break, Cauthen says. If your workouts feel like an obligation to "burn off lunch" or "get your steps in," it's probably time to put the tracking aside and reconsider your goals.