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Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.

Should You Use a Fitness Tracker?

Are fitness trackers motivational or detrimental?

Nike, Fitbit, Polar, Soleus, Jawbone, Garmin, even LG—it seems many manufacturers are cashing in on the fitness tracker craze. If you don’t want to purchase a device, no worries, there’s an app for that! MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, Diet Tracker, Fitter Fitness, Map My Fitness, Fitness Buddy, the list goes on…

Are they useful? Sure! They are great for those who really have no idea how many calories they are burning during an activity or how many calories are in different foods they are eating. They can also really help those in need of a motivational tool to keep them going.

But there’s a downside. I was recently asked by a reporter whether there were any potential negatives to using a Fitness Tracker or Fitness App. My answer? Absolutely.

I was talking to a client of mine about this the other day. She recently joined a weight loss support group where using MyFitnessPal was recommended so that everyone in the group could see each other’s progress and encourage each other to stay on track when they didn’t eat right or engage in any physical activity. At first, she was excited about the prospect of being held accountable by her app and her group members. But on day two, she realized something: 1) she wasn’t being honest about her food intake or her activity level because ‘other people were watching’, which kind of defeated the purpose of tracking in the first place, and 2) she found herself anxious and thinking about either bingeing or restricting to compensate for her fear of being judged by those in her weight loss group.

And that really is the dark side of fitness trackers. For many, they can be a very useful tool, but if you have or have ever had a tendency toward an eating disorder, they can be a nightmare. That ‘accountability’ can push you over the edge into danger zone—and it happens so quickly and easily that you may not realize it at first.

Which begs the question: Should you be tracking at all? I get this question a lot. And, again, it depends. I think if you have no tendency toward any type of eating disordered mentality, tracking your workouts or your food intake for a little while can be very motivating; but tracking everything you put in your mouth for weeks on end might get a little tedious and obsessive for some.

So what’s healthy use of fitness devices and apps and what’s a warning sign?

I tend to use the same criteria for addiction to fitness devices as I do for addiction to exercise:

  1. Tolerance – either a need for increased reliance on the app/tracker or increasing amounts of exercise or decreased amounts of food because using the tracker makes you feel like you should be doing more and more
  2. Withdrawal – you either get anxious when you can’t use your tracker or have to use the app to avoid the anxiety you know you will experience if you don’t use it
  3. Intention Effect – spend more time using the tracker/app than you intended—get caught up in inputting everything in, sharing your results, checking your friend’s results, etc.
  4. Lack of Control – a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control use of the tracker and/or exercise/calorie counting
  5. Time – a great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the results your tracker tells you that you need to do (e.g., physical activity vacations, spending hours pouring over nutrition labels at the grocery store)
  6. Reductions in Other Activities – social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of exercise or obsession with calories and calorie tracking
  7. Continuance – continue to restrict calories or exercise despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the use of the tracker (e.g., continued running despite injury).

If you meet three or more of the above criteria, you may be developing an addiction to your fitness tracker and may end up sick or injured for your efforts. If, on the other hand, none of these were red flags for you, then you are probably fine to continue using your tracker. Just keep an eye out for warning signs that your use of the tracker and/or calorie counting or activity levels are becoming obsessive or unhealthy.

Bottom line: You know your body best as well as your triggers and your limits. Use trackers if you want, but proceed with caution.


About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.