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Why your fitness tracker might be making your anxiety worse

BY Kena Shah

14th Dec 2022 Wellbeing

Why your fitness tracker might be making your anxiety worse

Fitness trackers can do wonders for motivating us to exercise, but is there a dark side to the tech? Experts share why your Fitbit might harm your mental health

Imagine seeing 8,000 steps on your fitness tracker at the end of the day. A commendable feat. Yet, you feel like a failure and ignore your body’s call for rest so that you can finish your daily, albeit arbitrary, goal of 10,000 steps. 

Sound familiar?

Whether it’s an Apple watch or the newest Fitbit, fitness trackers have risen in popularity due to their ability to quantify your body’s fitness level.

Trackers today offer a wide range of data that help people achieve their fitness goals. Heart rate, step count, and sleep monitoring are some of the most popular features.

But be honest—does observing your heart rate every few minutes add to your wellbeing? Or is it doing the opposite and causing anxiety over minor fluctuations?

Reassurance and dopamine hits

Man running outside while checking fitness trackerThe dopamine hit that logging achievements on a fitness tracker can give you has a dark side

Fitness trackers certainly work for many people. They provide encouragement and motivation to complete your workout with reward systems, such as closing the rings on your Apple watch.

We all know how addicting small dopamine hits are for the brain. People look to fitness trackers for reassurance—if the results are good. 

The flip side is how constant reminders from a device can make an individual anxious over not meeting their goals. Or worse, it leads to people pushing themselves too hard in order to achieve a perfect 10,000 steps. 

Anxiety and OCD

Anxiety, perfectionism and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) all result in a need to have control over things.

When you throw a fitness tracker into the mix, an individual will feel anxious if they do not complete their goals. This is to the point that they cannot carry on with their daily routine.

Anxiety from the use of fitness trackers can arise in anyone. As a tech professional, Hector Ruiz found his Fitbit fun to play with at first. But he soon discovered that “wanting to hit [his] daily step goals was making [him] uneasy.”

"The constant dings and buzzes of a tracker trigger anxiety and OCD-like behaviour"

He had slipped into the habit of checking his tracker multiple times a day to see if he was hitting his step goals.

Despite being aware that there was more to fitness and health than steps, the Fitbit had become a source of anxiety for him rather than something that could aid his health goals.

Dr Saara Haapanen, PhD and health coach, describes this phenomenon as a tiger running after you, activating your fight-or-flight response.

The constant dings and buzzes of a tracker reminding you to get your steps in or stand up every hour “trigger anxiety and OCD-like behaviour,” she says. 

Steps and sleep

Woman lying in bed using sleep tracker app to monitor sleep qualityHyper vigilance over good quality sleep and fitness might trigger anxiety

This anxiety is the reason why people end up developing perfectionism through the use of fitness trackers, explains Juulia Karlstedt, a BACP accredited counsellor and therapist.

Step counts and quality of sleep seem to be the biggest triggers.

“People have come to associate a reading on their fitness tracker of a bad night's sleep with anticipation of a bad, anxiety-filled day in general,” says Juulia.

Expecting anxiety to occur is a surefire way to manifest it into existence, even if it never would have happened otherwise.

Which begs the question: where do we draw the line? 

Perfectionism and orthosomnia

Hector found himself being late to work more often after he started wearing his Fitbit. The reason? “Sometimes I would take the longer path to my office to sneak in steps,” he says.

Of course, it’s always great to get some extra activity into your day, but it’s clear that the line is drawn when a device meant to improve your life starts to hinder it. 

"It’s clear that the line is drawn when a device meant to improve your life starts to hinder it"

A study done by Sabra Abbott, MD, PhD, on orthosomnia (the obsessive pursuit of optimal sleep) shows the effects of perfectionism.

Each person in the study was found to spend excessive time in bed in order to get a perfect sleep score on their fitness tracker, even if they woke up well rested, but their tracker said otherwise. 

What works for you

Fitness trackers are based on studies that tell us how many steps or how many hours of sleep are ideal for the average human.

Dr Haapanen says that this is why trackers are not a one-size-fits-all because “you need to figure out what works best for you and your lifestyle.” 

The fact is that everyone has a different baseline level of health. What works for one person may not for another, and this is true in every facet of life. 

"Everyone has a different baseline level of health. What works for one person may not for another"

Context also matters, as John Toner states in his essay on the dark side of fitness trackers.

“A new parent who spends weeks or months in a sleep-deprived state is highly unlikely to be in a position whereby they can maintain recommended levels of exercise,” says Toner.

Yet, fitness trackers will continue to send notifications, reminding individuals to move. Toner says that this can create a state of mind where the user feels they are not doing enough, when in fact they don’t have the capacity to. 

Finding a healthy relationship with your fitness tracker

At the end of the day, fitness trackers are helpful when used right and when a person has the capacity to develop a healthy relationship with their tracker.

But once anxiety starts to creep in, regular use of the tracker should be reconsidered and discontinued if it starts to hinder your everyday life.

Fitness trackers should also not be depended upon to make decisions for you and your body, because a device cannot pick up on context. 

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