Katherine Schreiber and Heather Hausenblas Ph.D.

The Truth About Exercise Addiction

Do Fitness Trackers Promote Eating Disorders?

A new study suggests they can

Posted Feb 15, 2017

By Katherine Schreiber

There's been much debate over whether fitness trackers (apps and devices like FitBit or Jawbone) have the power to exacerbate — if not, for certain individuals, initially trigger — eating disorders. Some argue that the obsessive focus on numbers entailed in fitness tracking can only be expected to foster an unhealthy relationship to exercise, inasmuch as attending more to exercise's numerical statistics (calories burnt, miles run, steps taken) alienates one from his or her own bodily signals. The competition inherent in sharing one's exercise statistics, as most fitness tracking apps enable you to do, may also (some believe) encourage an unhealthy attitude towards working out that discounts one's own fatigue or bodily limits, constantly baiting users to up their game just to be at the top of whatever ranking a fitness tracker app has to offer.

 Vernon Chan
Source: Flickr: Vernon Chan

Until recently most of this had been conjecture. Anecdotal evidence has cropped up to back the hypothesis that fitness trackers encouraged obsession. (One need only google the terms "fitness tracker" and "eating disorder" to find a trove of personal stories confirming a supposed link.) But no research had ever been done to test whether there actually is an association (and a causative link, at that) between using a fitness tracker and being more at risk for an eating disorder or addictive relationship to exercise.

A new study by Courtney C. Simpson and Suzanne E. Mazzeo set out to set the record straight on fitness trackers' potential to make people sick. What they found was that, for some users, fitness trackers can indeed do more harm than good.

Simpson and Mazzeo recruited 493 undergraduate students (345 women and 148 men) who reported their height and weight and filled out a questionnaire measuring eating disorder symptomatology (the Eating Disorder Examination-Questionnaire, a.k.a. the EDE-Q). They were then asked whether or not they used any kind of fitness tracking technology (from fancy FitBits to standard pedometers) as well as calorie-tracking gadgets or apps (like MyFitnessPal).

19.6% of undergraduates used some type of fitness device while 13.8% used a calorie tracking device. Use of one predicted use of the other, with 64.7% of the calorie-tracker users also reporting they used fitness trackers and 44.9% of the fitness-tracker users reporting they also used calorie counting devices.

 CDC/Amanda Mills
Source: FreeStockPhotos: CDC/Amanda Mills

Additionally — and, as expected — use of fitness tracking devices also predicted an increase in eating disorder symptomatology. "Interestingly," the authors point out in their paper, published in the journal Eating Behaviors, "fitness tracking, but not calorie tracking, emerged as a unique indicator of ED symptomatology. This finding suggests that activity monitoring might be more aligned with disordered eating attitudes and behaviors than calorie tracking."

Such results, Simpson and Mazzeo surmise, "suggest that fitness tracking technology might be a mechanism for promoting exercise for appearance rather than health reasons. Indeed, exercising for health need not be excessive; yet without rest days or time limits on physical activity, activity tracking might encourage excessive exercise for appearance reasons. This is potentially concerning, as exercising for appearance reasons is associated with negative health outcomes, and excessive exercise can lead to injury and exhaustion."

The authors are quick to point out, however, that "self-tracking technology is not inherently harmful." In other words: Trying out a fitness tracker won't necessarily "give you" an eating disorder out of the blue. Individuals with nascent or full blown eating disorders simply may be more drawn to fitness tracking in the first place. Or, given their vulnerabilities to disordered beliefs and behaviors surrounding food and exercise, a device that encourages a numerical focus akin to the obsessive fixation on measurements that characterizes eating disorders and exercise addiction can only be expected to fuel, if not worsen, their pathology. 

So while fitness trackers can exacerbate eating disorder symptoms in individuals who are at risk for developing them, they shouldn't be considered a menace to society at large. That being said, treatment providers and health advocates may want to, as Simpson and Mazzeo suggest, "assess for ED-related attitudes and behaviors prior to recommending health tracking devices for weight management."

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