There was a time when wearable fitness trackers meant a simple pedometer. But now, wearable fitness technology has advanced so significantly that there’s very little a tracker can’t do. And they’ve become incredibly popular and easily accessible.
All of the best fitness trackers can monitor activity, speed, steps, sleep, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. They analyze the data you provide when you wear them to encourage you to move more. You can also connect with friends who wear fitness trackers, to see how much activity they are getting in a day. They can even be worn underwater.
These trackers are now often an extension of our smartphones or computers, and, by proxy, an extension of us.
Wearing a fitness tracker can have indisputable health benefits, but sometimes the line between healthy use of a fitness tracker and an unhealthy obsession with the data and numbers can become blurred.
In the thick of my eating disorder, I could not stand to take off my Apple Watch to charge it. I was afraid that it would miss a random burst of activity and would prevent me from reaching my movement or standing goals. I paced my apartment at night attempting to close my rings and felt anxiety when I did not burn as many calories as I expected during a spin class. I checked my various stats again and again and again throughout the day.
It’s like a switch was gradually flipped. My wearable was no longer serving me—I was serving it. And despite what those numbers were telling me, my behavior was unhealthy.
Through conversations with fitness experts and eating disorder professionals, I learned this experience can be pretty common. For many, what starts as a positive influence on health can morph into a detrimental obsession, and even become a breeding ground for orthorexia.
Three experts I spoke with offered advice on how to maintain a healthy relationship with your wearable fitness trackers so that they keep you healthy, as intended.
First, Ask Yourself ‘Why?’
When purchasing a fitness tracker, it’s important to ask yourself why you want to buy one, says Nadia Murdock, a fitness coach and barre instructor.
“Ask yourself: Why are you buying it? Are you looking for some sort of accountability? Are you looking for some guidance? Are you just buying it because it’s trending?” says Murdock.
Murdock says she once had a “toxic” relationship with her fitness tracker, and has since stopped using it. But if you do want one, a critical first step is reflecting on what you are looking to gain from wearing it.
And, she says—just like a workout or fitness class—it's important to find a tracker that works for you. “Make sure it has all the bells and whistles that fit your lifestyle,” she says. There are so many options to pick from now that you can find a fitness tracker with the specific features you want.
Katie Spada, a registered dietician who works with former athletes, says she personally wears an Apple Watch, and sees a lot of her clientele wearing fitness trackers, too.
“I think fitness trackers can be a really helpful tool, if the mindset around them is supportive of that,” Spada says. She says, for example, that if someone is using a fitness tracker only to track calories and using that number to dictate how much to eat, “it can be really harmful.”
Utilize Well-Rounded Health Features
Jeff Halevy, a fitness coach and cofounder of Altis, an AI-powered fitness trainer, says adequate sleep is one of the most important factors in one’s health.
“If there's one variable that you are going to track and use as a lever to alter your health outcomes, I would actually put sleep above everything else,” Halevy says. “Yes, nutrition is important. Yes, moving around every day is important. But I would put sleep above everything else.”
Quality sleep can elevate your mood, increase energy, help you reach your fitness goals, and aid in recovering from intense workouts faster. Halevy recommends using a fitness tracker that monitors and analyzes the quantity and quality of your sleep—a sentiment Murdock and Spada support as well.
“I think we undervalue how impactful good sleep is on our health, even without changing anything else,” Spada says.
Murdock says that, beyond sleep-tracking capabilities, other, more basic features available on most fitness trackers can have a meaningful benefit on overall health, by tracking water consumption, offering mindfulness and meditation reminders, and fostering a sense of community.
Murdock says that when she was starting her own fitness journey, she felt isolated and lonely. Not a lot of other people in her life were interested in the same activities as her, and she struggled to find adequate advice or insight. Being able to connect with people, such as old acquaintances or coworkers, on fitness trackers is a good way to find a support network that can give you the positive feedback and encouragement Murdock says she lacked.
“I love that built-in community aspect,” Murdock says of today’s fitness trackers and apps.
Spada says that while studies have found that calorie counts and step counts can be inaccurate, heart rate trackers can be accurate. She says monitoring your heart rate is really helpful to see if the workout you’re doing is improving your cardiovascular health.
Spada works in a hospital as a dietician and also runs her own business, so she finds herself sitting a lot. She says the reminders to stand and move around are helpful.
“I'm just like, Oh my gosh, I was so engrossed in my work. And I realized that it's been two hours since I’ve moved,” Spada says.
But she warns that it’s important to be aware of whether those reminders are helpful or annoying, or even perpetuating fear and encouraging an obsessive mindset—and turn them off if they are.
Spada says the Mindful Minutes feature on Apple Watch can be helpful for her clients who struggle with anxiety.
“We get caught up in the hustle culture and don't give ourselves a moment to check in,” Spada says. The mindful breathing exercises give people “a little bit of space to think about ‘Where am I at right now? How am I feeling?’”
Focus on Feeling Good
How your body and mind feel during and after movement should be more of a priority than burning a set number of calories or racking in tens of thousands of steps, Murdock says. So while a fitness tracker can help motivate you to move more, it’s important to find ways to move that are fun and fulfilling for you: walking, swimming, roller skating, or dancing.
Halevy worked with former first lady Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move!” campaign. As part of the project, he ran a competition among freshmen at five Newark, New Jersey, high schools to encourage physical activity. The premise involved wearable technology—before it was as popular as it is now. Each day, a ring on the students’ devices was red, and when they completed 60 minutes of daily physical activity, their devices glowed green. Halevy says the winner of the competition, Samantha Oliveira, told him she moved so much thanks to Beyoncé.
“I'm like, ‘Well, how did Beyoncé help you?’ And she's like, ‘I danced to Beyoncé every day,’” Halevy says.
“She didn't feel obligated to get in a certain number of steps, to exercise, to do any of the things that a lot of people would ordinarily jump to,” he adds. Halevy thinks a lot of people could benefit from approaching fitness as Oliveira did—by keeping it simple and doing something you enjoy.
Halevy says fitness trackers can help gauge our health, but “numbers only give us part of the story.”
The other part of the story is analyzing how you feel in your day-to-day life.
“I definitely think that they're beneficial for you to know how much effort you're putting in, or it's encouraging to see, like, ‘Oh, I did this amount last week,’ right? And then, ‘Oh, this week I did a hundred more steps,’ that's super encouraging. But I think where the slippery slope happens is when you're only motivated by that alone and not about how it makes you feel, or about how maybe you lowered your cholesterol or how you slept better because you walked those extra hundred steps,” Murdock says.
“It should really be about overall wellness, mind, and body.”
Be Kind to Yourself
“No day is the same,” Murdock explains. “There may be a full week of interviews or deadlines or whatever, and you're not meeting those goals.”
She recommends you don’t punish yourself for not meeting those fitness goals by overexercising or undereating. “That's where it can become toxic.”
Spada says that when she struggles with a bad body image day or bad feelings about her fitness, she asks herself three questions:
- Am I nourishing myself?
- Am I moving my body out of respect for it?
- Am I resting?
“And if I am choosing to intentionally rest, and I'm doing the joyful movement and nourishing my body, well, then I can only thank my body for what it's doing for me. Otherwise, I'm not really in control of how my body changes … Those are the only things I'm in control of.”
Know When to Take It Off
If you find yourself feeling bad or anxious when wearing a fitness tracker, it’s OK to take it off.
Murdock says that recognizing those feelings is half the battle, and they can be caused by a number of different things: an eating disorder, past trauma, fatphobia, and pressure and messaging from society about diet culture and “wellness.” And if you do reflect on how your tracker is making you feel and discover that it’s become unhealthy, Murdock suggests you take a break from wearing one.
During that break, she says, ask yourself: “Do I need this all the time? Do I just need a break for a reset? Do I need it at all?”
“I think that that will help you figure out the next step you want to take with your tracker, whether you continue to use it or not, or maybe opt for a different one,” Murdock says.
Halevy says a family member of his became unhealthily obsessed with a fitness and nutrition tracking app.
“It very quickly became, hands down, the most-used app on her phone,” Halevy says. “And she realized that she was getting stressed out—actually experiencing stress—about what she was seeing.”
Halevy’s advice to his family member was similar to his approach to recovering from his own substance abuse: Count the small victories. Delete the app for the next meal, for a few hours, or for a day at a time to regain some control.
“That’s enough to start that process knowing that if you really want to, you can always put the strap back on, the app can be downloaded, all of those things are there,” Halevy says. “But just starting with that next one, I find it to be a very valuable approach.”
Halevy acknowledges that it can be incredibly difficult, because not using them “makes us feel like we’re giving up this valuable thing because it has our data in there.”
Spada also encourages anyone who is experiencing negative emotions with a fitness tracker to seek professional help, “because oftentimes, the things that we’re doing are really just the symptoms.”
“You can take off the fitness tracker, sure, but are you really addressing the main concern? If not, it’s going to manifest in other ways,” she says.