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Do I Need a Fitness Tracker?

Stephanie Margolis, R.D.

The rapid expansion of fitness trackers is mind-boggling when you think about it. When I began my career 15 years ago, most measures of exercise, calories, and heart rate were found within the clinical and lab settings. We thought we were fancy when we clipped that plastic pedometer on our waistband that tracked (usually inaccurately) our steps for the day. Now there are over 423 unique fitness tracker devices from 132 brands. The accuracy has also vastly improved with fitness trackers being deemed by the science community as “sufficiently accurate” so much so they are valid in research studies.

This technology boom has led to a new movement deemed the “Quantified Self.” This is where we track everything every day. We know how much we ate, how much we burned, what our heart rate is, and even our fertility window. It’s always on.

How Fitness Trackers Are Beneficial

There are many great things that these fitness trackers can do. When you look at the design of these devices, you find that they are based in science. Apply the self-determination theory to these devices and it backs up all the ways we find the motivation for behaviors. Using goal setting, tools of measurement, and feedback to rev up those intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic factors like setting goals and action planning can lead people to be more active, boost their cardiovascular health, and even have improvements in blood sugar control. Intrinsic factors like feeling motivated by past successful days can also be seen with the tracker.

The short and sweet of it: when you have a tracker you set goals, see yourself meet those goals in real time, and begin to feel more competent in your abilities. (We talk a lot about improving competency in the context of intuitive eating here and here).

Many of these fitness trackers take guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Health and Human Services, and American Council on Exercise into consideration. These organizations recommend moderate aerobic exercise 150 minutes per week (or 30 minutes 5 days a week) OR vigorous aerobic exercise 75 minutes per week. If you turn on your watch for the first time, most will have the preset activity at 30 minutes each day.

Let’s talk step counts. Back in the day of pedometers, science was showing 10,000 steps per day as a target to improve your fitness and health. While this is a good goal, and tracking your steps was shown to increase your daily average by about 2500 steps, your fitness is so much more than a step count. We know trackers that account for your heart rate in their algorithm provide a more comprehensive look at your health. There has also been more research on the impact sitting for long stretches can have on your overall health, and wearing a fitness tracker may help remind you to move throughout the day.

Is There a Downside to Using a Fitness Tracker?

As with most things the answer is … it depends.

In a 2019 survey, the relationship between women and their fitness tracker was closely examined and here’s what was found:

  • 89% of women wear their tracker constantly, only removing to charge the battery.
  • Wearing a tracker had a profound impact on a woman’s decision making related to diet and exercise.
  • When women either forgot their tracker or the battery ran out, they described feeling:
    • Naked without it
    • The activities they completed without the tracker were “wasted”
    • Less motivated to move
  • Wearing the tracker has measurable mental health impacts including:
    • Pressure to reach daily targets
    • Routines controlled by the tracker
    • Feeling guilty when they couldn’t “close their rings”

You can probably see where this is going. However, if you’ve ever felt this way, it may be wise to reevaluate the role your fitness tracker has in your daily life. Often the fitness tracker causes us to misplace our motivation to work out from exercising to feel good and love our bodies to instead focus on calories burned.

If you have ever struggled with an eating disorder, disordered eating, or body dysmorphia, a fitness tracker can have a very negative impact. Many times I have worked with women who have a history of an unhealthy relationship with food and now have an unhealthy relationship with working out. A fitness tracker can exacerbate the common tendencies of perfectionism and the need to control. It can also harm those who already are too aware of the calories that go in and out of their body.

Bottom line: Check in with yourself regarding the impact your fitness tracker has on your health. Give yourself grace when fueling and moving your body. Don’t let a little “ping” steal your joy for exercise.

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