Is it Time to Ditch Your Fitness Tracking Device?

By Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S

For some, fitness wearables can be a way of improving performance.  Some people thrive on the data. But for high risk populations like those with obsessive compulsive tendencies, OCD, eating disorders, compulsive exercise, muscle dysmorphia and many more – the metrics used in these watches can literally be fatal.

These devices increase pressure to move more. For example, the watch asks users to set up a goal and then reminds them to meet this goal regularly. “Move!” the Garmin watch will yell. It’s easy to feel pressure to increase beyond these goals too.  The Apple Watch will tell flash the message “Stand” or show users that they fell short of “closing the colored circles,” indicating that they didn’t exercise or stand enough. Garmin will send a message, “Training Status: Detraining.” It sounds as if you are wilting away and your fitness level is declining – the app says so! 

Eating Disorder is enough pressure by itself

For those with eating disorders, OCD, or compulsive exercise, this added pressure is dangerous.  Those who struggle with their relationship with exercise in any capacity may struggle with controlling over-exercising. They may have invasive and persistent thoughts about wishing they could exercise more, or thoughts about feeling guilty that they didn’t exercise enough. They may have loved ones around them telling them to sit down, stop shaking, stop walking, stop bending, and perhaps they have to be watched when they are doing their homework to ensure they are not moving during activities in which they should be stationary.  

Exercising too much can be a problem. A person becomes more at risk for “low energy availability” which can cause life threatening complications which effect many systems of the body, including the heart. We see dangerously low heart rates, changes in blood pressure and pulse in different positions (laying to standing), hormone suppression (estrogen and testosterone plus others), reductions in bone density leading to stress fractures, electrolyte disturbances, liver changes etc — all from too much exercise, and not eating enough food. For more about compulsive exercise, check out this post.  

There are an increasing number of studies that have already shown that dietary tracking apps like MyFitnessPal where counting calories are involved, exacerbates eating disorder symptoms and psychological distress (Linardon et al 2019, Levinson et al 2017, Simpson et al 2017). Apps cause a series of maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors including guilt, social isolation, and feelings of being controlled by the app (Honary et al 2019).   This is one of many reasons why we recommend using the Plate-by-Plate-Approach (a no-counting, no-measuring approach) for the treatment of those struggling with eating disorders.  Numbers and counting don’t work for those struggling with eating disorders.  

Along the same lines,  a study by Plateau et al 2018, showed that those who wore fitness wearables reported higher levels of both disordered eating and compulsive exercise than non-users.

Careful consideration is necessary when choosing to wear a watch that collects data, and spews out bossy comments.  Are you reactive?  Does the watch increase obsessiveness?  Can you shrug off the watch’s demands to MOVE and STAND if you are not in the mood (who wants to exercise because the watch tells you to anyway)?   If you find the watch makes your mindset, medical condition, mood, stress level, or mental clarity worse, or if the cons outweigh the pros, it might be time to break up with your fitness watch. 

But only you can answer: is it time to ditch your fitness tracker? 

*Thank you SL for the photos

Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Approved Supervisor through the International Eating Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in the Bay Area in California. She is the Team Nutritionist of the Oakland Athletics. She is the co-author of “How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder” and “No Weigh! A Teens Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom.” Follow her on Instagram at @wendy_sterling and @platebyplateapproach   or  Twitter: @WendyMSRD.  For more on her practice, check out her website at: