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The Dark Side of Fitness Trackers

posted on June 17, 2019

The Dark Side of Fitness Trackers 

-Alison Yee-


There are so many tools in our fitness toolboxes that we can use on our quests to healthier lives.  In this technology driven age, it is only natural that we rely heavily upon some automated tools like smart phones, apps and fitness trackers.  There’s no doubt that these devices have the ability to make certain things about our health & wellness goals more attainable, quantifiable and, at times, more enjoyable.  Keeping track of numerous variables about us are things that fitness trackers, like a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, are designed to do.  It takes the guesswork out of aspects in our workouts and often many features of our lives.  And this all sounds great, right? So what’s the problem? 


There are thousands of articles, blogs and research studies touting the myriad benefits of fitness trackers.  And they’re not wrong.  Fitness trackers are kinda great.  They can monitor your steps, heart rate, sleep patterns, nutrition/diet and water intake all while giving you some personal accountability and motivation. All this tracking, according to some studies, tends to lead to increased activity and productivity levels, more/better sleep, and better overall health & nutrition.  These are all great things! So, again what’s the problem here?


In the 1930’s there was a philosopher named Lewis Mumford.  Throughout his life, Mumford articulated that there was a fine line with technology, as it can be both liberating and oppressive.  He said, “Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences.”  And an Apple Watch or Fitbit is just that—a novelty. Yet so many people who wear tracking devices report that they feel naked without it or that their workout “didn’t count” if they weren’t wearing their device.  Still others report that they feel guilty if they didn’t meet their daily goals and others report that they feel controlled by their device.  Alarmingly, this does sound a bit like “surrendering to novelties” that Mumford warned about, doesn’t it? 


Personally as a Fitbit user, I can attest to some of these feelings as well.  One of the biggest obstacles in my health & wellness journey right now is lack of sleep.  My goal is to get over six hours of sleep every night.  I bet you can guess the first thing I do when I wake up?  Yep, check my Fitbit app to look at my sleep cycles.   If it is under my goal, I feel defeated. A strange thing often happens too—even if I woke up feeling relatively rested, I will feel instantly tired the moment my app tells me I was under my goal.  In my case, I let an app dictate my mood and my feelings.  Yet, if you asked me to try not wearing my Fitbit at night I would look at you like you just asked me to give away my first-born child.  If you want me to take off my Fitbit, you’re gonna have to pry it off my cold, dead wrist. So, um, Mumford you may have a point here…


The question is can we observe these things without obsessing over them? Tracking, whether it is your heart rate during a workout or your food for the day, can be a powerful tool.  It’s a tool that I often recommend to my clients in order to meet their goals faster.  Tracking is an amazing way to gain a sense of empowerment and awareness as well. But remember, as Mumford would say, to respect the consequences.  Fitness trackers can have a positive impact in our lives by creating insights for us and letting us interact with those insights in constructive and meaningful ways. Yet, be cautious and remember that these devices are sometimes not as pure and unproblematic as we’d like to believe.  Use your device for a sense of empowerment or education, but do not let it control you. Remember that tracking is a tool, not the end-all-be-all.  


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