Tracking steps, physical activity, food consumption, and water intake offers a great self-monitoring approach. Fortunately, there are multiple fitness tracking devices and free apps on the market that clients (as well as health and exercise pros) can use regularly to keep them accountable, on target towards a goal, and motivated. But when does daily tracking move from an accountability measure to an obsessive, potentially unhealthy practice? Is there a dark side to logging these metrics?
There’s nothing “wrong” with using a fitness tracker or an app, but there are aspects of these devices and services the general consumer should become aware of so that accountability doesn’t turn to data obsession. If you have fitness clients who utilize these methods (or use them yourself) pay attention to potential consequences of the development of a myopic focus.
Potential Downsides of Health and Fitness Tracking
Lack of Body Awareness
A possible outcome of constantly using a fitness device or tracking option is the eclipsing of internal body cues. When an individual is “tied” to a device or feels constantly compelled to track every morsel and beverage every day, it’s easy to negate messages the body is attempting to send. An overreliance on a device can cause an individual to focus solely on the data the device provides instead of nurturing a sense of body awareness and mindfulness. Consequently, the individual can forget to “check-in” with their body and ask, “how am I feeling today?” Fitness and food tracking then become something directed by a device.
Oversimplification of Deeper Issues
Many are motivated to use a device or tracking method because they mistakenly believe “it will solve a problem” or “this is the answer to weight loss struggles.” True, a device can provide usable data, but it isn’t a true lifestyle change. If the issues a client struggles with are rooted in behaviors, a device will only address or reveal part of the problem.
Diminished Motivation and Negatively Perceived Messaging
Most devices and tracking apps have built-in messaging systems that are designed to serve as “motivating messages” and “gentle reminders” to get up and move, record your water intake, stand, breathe, etc. The issue is within the way those messages are perceived. While it can be motivating and encouraging, some individuals experience guilt or shame if their “rings” aren’t closed or they forgot to log that extra glass of wine.
Increased Rigidity and Routine Obsession
Again, many individuals find tracking to be a method of accountability and reflection. But it can derail others by unintentionally encouraging rigid and restrictive practices. Generally, health and exercise professionals want to see their clients move more, sit less, eat mindfully, and manage stress effectively. A rigid and restrictive routine can have the opposite outcome. Clients can become too focused on sticking to their routine and daily practices that they forgo social opportunities and downtime.
Worse yet, some may become obsessive about the tracking–known as” techorexia“– potentially revealing or magnifying latent disordered eating patterns.
Falling into A Comparison Trap
Fitness trackers and apps are so widely used, chances are most of our clients have friends who use the same (or a similar) approach. What starts as a friendly competition or a socially supportive way to compare daily or weekly metrics can soon become a comparison trap. Two people of the same age, sex, and health status can exercise and eat the same and experience vastly different results.
Overall, fitness trackers and logging can be useful for many of our clients, but it isn’t the only (or even the most highly recommended) method of self-monitoring. We know tracking calorie for calorie is inaccurate and fitness trackers can vary in their caloric expenditure reporting and intensity measures. When working with clients to develop measures of accountability, invest time in uncovering what truly motivates each client and identify multiple methods for self-monitoring. You can also work with clients to responsibly integrate technology (trackers and apps) in ways that provide both accountability and flexibility.