The dark side of fitness trackers
GLANCING DOWN AT HER FITBIT, Katie* was disheartened to see she hadn’t reached her goal number of steps for the day. So far, so normal. After all, for those of us who wear fitness trackers, who hasn’t wanted to get their steps up to 10,000 before bed?
Except Katie was aiming for 20,000. And rather than a quick march to get her numbers up, Katie went for a run, even though she’d already done a full gym session at lunchtime. Finally, her tracker buzzed 20,000 and she went to bed.
‘I was anorexic in my teens,’ says Katie, a 28-year-old marketing manager from Kent. ‘In my first year of university it got so bad I weighed five and a half stone, was admitted to a clinic and had to do my first year again. So I was the last person who should have got a fitness tracker.’
After university, Katie’s weight stabilised although she admits to keeping an eye on it – ‘I weighed eight and a half stone and was a size 8-10. I went to the gym three times a week and ate incredibly healthily. Probably a bit too healthily, looking back.’
Two years ago Katie downloaded a running app to help her train for a 10k. ‘Seeing the numbers was a great spur for me,’ she says. ‘I started competing with friends, who also had the app, and then with myself – something I did when I was anorexic. “I’ve got to run further, or faster, than I did two nights ago,” I used to think as I pounded the streets after work while all my colleagues were in the pub.
‘Around the same time I downloaded a healthy-eating app. I wanted to know how much sugar I was eating, but I got a kick out of seeing my calorie intake for the day – especially if it was low. If I met friends for dinner, I’d cut right back the next day and seeing the lower total flash up gave me an all-too familiar thrill. Pretty soon, I stopped meeting up with friends if food was involved. I followed hundreds of health and fitness bloggers
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on Instagram, then I got my Fitbit and set my daily step total at 15,000, then 20,000.’
By this time Katie weighed just under seven stone and was a size 6-8. It was at this point that her parents stepped in. ‘My parents had seen me go down this road before and basically staged an intervention. They turned up at my flat one Saturday morning and told me they were booking me into my old clinic. I got angry and said I was healthy, that I knew what I was doing and wasn’t even that skinny and so on.
‘But once I calmed down, I knew they were right. I spoke to my boss (who knew my past and is incredibly supportive) and had three weeks off work. She told my colleagues I had a family issue, but I’m sure some of them suspected otherwise.
‘After a lot of therapy, I realised my anorexia was coming back and I was legitimising it with the tracker and apps. It wasn’t all down to them, said my therapist, but they definitely weren’t helping. I deleted all my fitness and diet apps and put my Fitbit in a drawer where it’s stayed ever since.’
So, are fitness trackers healthy, or do they have a dark side? ‘They can be great motivators, but in the wrong hands they can exacerbate the kind of obsessive calorie-counting that goes with eating disorders,’ says Dr Bijal Chheda-varma, a psychologist specialising in body image at London’s Nightingale Hospital. ‘One of the key symptoms of an eating disorder is a need for control and a huge focus on calorie counting via eating or exercise. There’s been a significant increase in people using trackers to track undereating or over-exercise and I’ve seen patients who have become obsessed. However, this is usually only the case if you’re already vulnerable. They’ll rarely cause an eating disorder out of the blue.’
And it seems they aren’t going anywhere. A study by the Future Laboratory and Confused.com found that 60% of 18- to 34-year-olds in the UK have a fitness app or tracker. Last year, over 70 million wearable tracking devices were sold worldwide and the wearable health market is predicted to grow from $2 billion in 2014 to $41 billion in 2020. The likes of Apple Watch, Fitbit, Jawbone and countless health and fitness apps can monitor everything from your steps to calories burnt and sleep quality.’
Dalton Wong, who trains Jennifer Lawrence, told Grazia: ‘Ironically, I’ve heard of people waking in the night to check their sleep trackers are working, which kind of defeats the object.’ He also thinks these trackers can often take the joy out of exercise: ‘One problem I see is people forgetting to be “in the moment” when exercising. For me, part of the joy of working out is clearing my head by going for a run. I don’t want to be looking at my wrist to see how many calories I’ve burned. We have such limited time in our day when we’re not tied down by technology and I believe exercise is a time we should be free of it.’ Dalton says there are also other ways to monitor your health too, like how well you sleep, how much energy you have and if your workouts are getting easier.
It seems there’s a fine line between health awareness and health obsession. A study from the website Conversation recently surveyed 200 Fitbit users and found 89% of wearers only take them off to charge them up, 79% admitted feeling under pressure to reach their targets and 30% sometimes felt guilty about their results. However, they also found almost all wearers took longer routes to increase their step count and ate healthier food.
‘There have been concerns voiced about over-reliance and over-obsession,’ says trainer Matt Roberts, ‘but there are always a few people who overdo exercise and over-obsess nutrition, sleep and steps, and all that wearable technology is doing is making it accurate. For the price of a few that overdo it, for the vast majority there are nothing other than massive gains from having a ton of new, relevant data and related advice. So embrace it.’ Or, as Katie puts it, ‘I look around my office and most of the women are wearing Apple watches or Fitbits and for those women, they’re just a harmless way to spur them on to being a little healthier. But for somebody like me, they’re the start of a slippery slope that I absolutely cannot afford to go down.’
n ‘If anyone feels they are becoming compelled to track calorific output or activity, they should seek the advice of a healthcare worker as soon as they can,’ says Mary George, spokesperson for eating disorders charity B-eat (b-eat.co.uk)
WE HAVE SUCH LIMITED TIME IN OUR DAY WHEN WE’RE NOT TIED DOWN BY TECHNOLOGY