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Is your fitness tracker really enhancing your health?

Aimee Richardson, MCHES, CHWC, NCTTP
for Henry Ford Health System
Emerging research suggests that tracking steps, sleep and/or food intake could actually sabotage your efforts to become healthier.

Fitness enthusiasts increasingly rely on health and fitness trackers to help them achieve their fitness goals. In addition to wearable gadgets that monitor your moves, there are also devices and apps that track every bite you eat.

The goal of these tools is to help people make healthy changes in their lives – to keep new exercisers on track or guide someone to appropriate nutrition decisions. But these gadgets also have a downside.

The drawbacks of health and fitness trackers

Emerging research suggests that tracking steps, sleep and/or food intake could actually sabotage your efforts to become healthier.

Aimee Richardson, MCHES, CHWC, NCTTP

Here are six ways your fitness tracker could be sabotaging your efforts:

  1. You’re not using the data: Data can be great. After all, if you know your numbers, you’ll be better equipped to take steps to modify them. Plus, becoming aware of mindless eating may help you press pause before raiding the pantry. But if you’re regularly tracking your every move and not doing anything with the data, go ahead and ditch the device.
  2. Information may be misleading: You might notice normal fluctuations in sleeping patterns or heart rate and worry unnecessarily about a potential health issue. Equally concerning, the data you get back may not be accurate. Studies suggest even top-of-the-line trackers are prone to miscalculations. Instead of fussing over the details, use your tracker to provide information about the big picture.
  3. You can become obsessed with data: If you’re more attached to your tracker than to friends and family members, that’s a problem. Even if you’re competing with friends, it’s easy to go overboard with challenges. Lose interest in exercise if you can’t document it? Feel anxious when you’re not attached to a tracker? Those are signs that your tracking habits are interfering with “real life.” Try leaving your tracker on the sidelines. Play soccer, volleyball or basketball, or go for a swim. Focus on the sport and the enjoyment of being active, not what your heart rate is.
  4. Data may lead to unhealthy behaviors: If your tracker shows you burned more calories than usual, or reached more than 10,000 steps that day, you may feel justified eating that big slice of cake. Or if you work out at a higher heart rate for a longer duration of time, you might feel like you can have two beers on a Saturday night. If you find yourself using your tracker to make excuses for unhealthy behaviors, search inside yourself for internal motivators, such as better health, improved fitness and a better mood instead.
  5. It interferes with mindfulness: Constantly monitoring your data impacts your ability to stay in the zone and be mindful about how your body feels. It can also interfere with your performance. You don’t want to feel pulled into your device and away from exercise. Focus on your workout and your body, not your data.
  6. They can make eating disorders worse: If you have an eating disorder or excessive exercise tendencies, using food and fitness tracking apps can be catastrophic. In fact, health tracking can feed into the perfectionism and need for control inherent in eating disorders. Steer clear of health and fitness trackers if you have a history of eating disorders and talk to your doctor or psychologist about healthier ways to assess your fitness level.

Health tracking: A better way

Remember that health recommendations are not one-size-fits all. Every individual has different basic needs. So even though standard recommendations like “exercise 30 minutes each day,” or “sleep for seven to nine hours each night” may repeat on a loop in your brain, they may not apply to you. Some people function at their best with only six hours of sleep, while others require 10 or more.

Use trackers to complement your routine as a sort of ‘check-in’ to help you stay on track. It’s a great way to bring awareness to your healthy and unhealthy habits and help guide you toward making healthier decisions.”

The best barometer of your health and fitness is how you feel. Listen to your body. Notice when you feel more energized and more depleted. Then alter your habits accordingly.

Need help staying on track? Working with a health coach can help you map a path toward achieving your goals. Just make sure to consult with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Aimee Richardson, MCHES, CHWC, NCTTP, leads the health coaching program at Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She is an experienced health educator and certified tobacco treatment specialist.

For an appointment to meet with a health coach, or to find a primary care doctor, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

For more advice on adding healthy habits to your life, check out our Henry Ford LiveWell blog and subscribe today.

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