For many endurance athletes, data is everything. Being able to track your steps, pace and sleep through a smart device can be both useful and fascinating. Findings from Pew Research Center show that about one in five US adults regularly wears a smartwatch or fitness tracker. However, this constant monitoring can also be problematic.
When do fitness trackers become problematic?
“Tracking devices have the potential to reinforce negative behaviors by encouraging obsessive tendencies, leading to anxiety and disordered eating patterns,” he says. Haley Perlus, sports and performance psychologist. “Perfectionists, people with a history of eating disorders, and people prone to overexertion should be careful with tracking devices because they can exacerbate existing problems.” She adds that you can become obsessed with goals—often at the expense of your overall well-being.
Problems can extend beyond yourself, affecting your relationships and work performance, he says Jessica Matthews, associate professor of integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University and director of health and wellness coaching at UC San Diego Health. Research published in Eating behavior In 2017, they found that calorie and fitness trackers were associated with characteristics synonymous with eating disorders.
Additionally, in a 2023 study published in Journal of Medical Internet Research, participants whose Apple watches were unwittingly manipulated to show fewer steps at the end of the day were more likely to exhibit unhealthy behaviors, including lower self-esteem and higher blood pressure. This is compared to participants whose step count remained accurate and intact.
Even not being able to carry a device—whether it’s uncharged or misplaced—can lead to frustration or anxiety, according to a 2019 study. BMC Psychology. According to Wendy Troxel, a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, stress can be exacerbated by not meeting a follow-up goal. Take sleep, for example. Troxel says athletes can suffer from orthosomnia, an obsession with finding optimal sleep, fueled by data from sleep trackers. But this mission, to get a good night’s sleep at all costs, often ends up causing more anxiety—and even leads to more sleep loss when you end up missing the mark. As a result, your athletic performance may be impaired.
How to develop a healthy relationship with your fitness tracker
It’s fine if you rely on your tracker or enjoy studying the data it collects. However, understanding where to draw the line is key to maintaining a healthy relationship with it. Perlus recommends following these four guiding principles.
You should use your fitness tracker for insights and motivation, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to track every activity or constantly check your stats.
You should truly enjoy your exercise and activities, whether or not you wear a device. “Tracking enhances your experience, but it doesn’t define it,” says Perlus.
You should be able to adjust your training plan based on how your body feels—rather than strictly following what the tracker dictates.
4. Stress management
Tracking should not cause you unnecessary stress or anxiety. “If a missed target or a low reading makes you overly upset, it could be a sign of an unhealthy attachment,” says Perlus.
If your thinking is not in line with these principles, you may have an unhealthy relationship with your seeker.
How to change your behavior
Instead of constantly looking at your stats, Matthews recommends turning to a daily one keeping a diary. “Subjective data can actually be just as useful as tracking more objective data from a smartwatch, as that information can paint a more complete picture of not only one’s progress, but overall health and well-being,” she says. The practice of journaling your exercises, including how you felt during and after each session (think: mood, pain, stress) can help you think in a healthy way, she explains.
Perlus also recommends paying attention to physiological cues such as heart rate variability, sleep quality and energy levels. If you’re still looking for external feedback, consider finding an exercise partner or joining an exercise club. By looking to others for support and motivation, you’ll work toward your goals—and build a new community.
Stop suppressing your pleasure
When it comes to fitness feats, such as running a marathon, cycling for a century, or climbing a mountain, over-emphasizing metrics can actually steal your joy and sense of accomplishment. Instead, you may feel a greater sense of pressure to perform, causing anxiety or fear about not meeting your goals, Perlus says.
By hooking up with tracking device stats, you might miss out on all the exciting things that make up an endurance event: your environment, the course, the camaraderie of the participants. And being present—noticing, without judgment or expectation, the thoughts that arise and the physical sensations you experience in your body—is a big part of engaging in physical activity of any kind, Matthews says.
While using a fitness tracker can be motivating, make sure it doesn’t override your ability to rest, recover, or engage in other forms of self-care. If you’re feeling mental pain or pressure to meet certain goals and numbers, it might be time to ditch that tracker.