Millions use a fitness tracker to monitor their body’s metrics, but there are pros and cons to living our lives according to our health data.
You wake up and look at your watch to check how well you slept. At the gym, you track your workout to measure your calorie burn and heart rate. Then, you log the details of every meal you eat into an app that rates your nutrition. Maybe you even input your menstrual cycle symptoms or track your body battery, blood oxygen levels or respiration via a wearable device.
When you think about it, the amount of data we can collect about our bodies is pretty mind-blowing. But have you ever stopped to think about what it’s doing for your health and wellbeing? We have – and whether you love or loathe tracking your health, it’s worth checking in on the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.
Keeping tabs on our health is no bad thing. Unlike in years prior when ‘progress’ could only be measured with a small few metrics like speed ran or scale weight, trackers allow us to see a wealth of information and real-time trends about what’s working for us.
“Trackers add objective data to things we would typically just measure subjectively, which anyone could benefit from. A small increase in daily steps or sleep or a decrease in stress can show meaningful changes in people’s health that they can witness first-hand,” says Liam Rodgers, head of treatment at London wellness facilities Until. That’s good news for people who want to improve invisible but important health markers, such as blood pressure or heart rate variability.
It’s also motivating: a 2022 study from the University of South Australia found that activity trackers don’t just collect data but inspire movement, effectively increasing physical activity by up to 40 minutes a day and helping people sustain new, active routines. “In a data-obsessed population, I truly believe people want to feel like they can take control over elements of their life and have a win each and every day,” says Dan O’Neill, Until’s head of training.
“Many fitness trackers come with goal-setting features, such as daily step targets, calories burnt or speeds reached which help users stay motivated and on track with their fitness goals.”
Plus, access to health data gives people an understanding of their bodies that they’ve never had before. Low health literacy is a huge problem, according to a 2019 BMC Public Health study, negatively affecting our access to and understanding of health information. However, researchers found health tracking, in particular period tracking apps, allows people to understand their menstrual cycles and bodies to the extent that it improved conversations with healthcare providers.
Fitness trackers can’t tell us everything though. While their trends are accurate - meaning levels moving up or down are reflecting the truth - the actual figure tends to be inaccurate. Last year, researchers from McMaster University reported that none of the fitness devices they tested were accurate in measuring energy expenditure, while another paper reported differences in sleep quantity of an hour and 36 minutes between devices.
“As insightful as trackers are, they’re at best an estimate and in no way an objective truth,” says O’Neill. That matters if you’re trying to match your energy intake to your output, or making decisions based on how much sleep you had.
All the numbers can often feel overwhelming too. “Tracking often helps influence a decision, but it might not be the correct decision. I find users’ interpretation comes down to their education on the subject and people often don’t know how to interpret results or adapt their sessions,” explains O’Neill. “For instance, movement can be a great way to counteract a bad night’s sleep, but a restless night might be interpreted on your tracker as evidence you aren’t ready to train.”
“One final downside of trackers is that they stop people from listening to their bodies, with people often paying more attention to what the data says,” Rodgers says. Your body’s signals aren’t trying to trick you but are a vital sign of what is happening in your body and what it needs.
Getting too obsessed with these numbers and guidelines is concerning. A 2018 study reported that compulsive exercise and disordered eating habits are elevated among people who use food and exercise monitors, in particular those who use it for weight or aesthetic purposes.
“Constantly thinking about how and when to track food or exercise can create an unhealthy relationship with food and movement,” says Huel’s junior nutrition manager, Jessica Stansfield. “It can stop people from enjoying social situations such as going out for meals for fear of not effectively navigating food choices and strip all joy from eating.”
Walking on the spot to hit your step count might seem like a harmless routine, but be honest about how much you’re worrying about your movement as a result of wearing a tracker. The same 2018 paper also found that fitness-tracking users were more than twice as likely to compulsive exercise or exercise ‘purge’ - burning off calories consumed via working out.
Studies also show that obsessing about getting the perfect night's sleep actually makes us sleep worse: researchers have reported a growing number of patients seeking treatment for self-diagnosed sleep disturbances due to observations from their sleep tracker and even coined the phrase ‘orthosomnia’ to describe an obsession with perfect sleep.
“Sleep quality is a byproduct of both the physical and mental health state and ironically the desire to track these sleep statistics can result in an anxious state, ultimately decreasing the sleep quality itself,” says O’Neill.
“We see unhealthy relationships with these trackers when it comes down to the over-reliance on the pursuit of perfection vs an enjoyment of the journey. I commonly see obsessive behaviors and tendencies to achieve an ideal food or exercise target, but the reality is that we are human and inherently life is not perfect.”
Fitness trackers can be a great way to learn more about your body and get motivated while you’re starting your journey, but be careful not to read too closely into them, or for too long.
As O’Neill says, we don’t need every inch of our routines to be reflected back at us via a tracker.
“Your success with any tracker is the ability to see trends, not data points and to identify progress, not perfection.”
Whether or not you choose to track is up to you, but don’t let a machine override your body or your choices.
To share with your friends, log in is required so that we can verify your identity and reward you for successful referrals.Log in to your account If you don't have a store account, you can create one here