The Case Against Fitness Trackers

Lately, I've been seeing an onslaught of Fitbits and Apple watches (and when I say lately, I mean the last 3 years). I've been discussing it more with clients and friends. It's actually become a part of my regular intake questions when I'm working with someone new - do you have a device that keeps track of calories/steps? Because if so, I want to talk about it. 

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing super clear: I am not trying to shame anyone for owning one of these devices. I don't want you to feel bad if you wear a fitness tracker every day. My point is to highlight the ways diet culture and the fitness industry have tricked us all into thinking these are all something we need to have to be healthy/fit and how that's kind of bullshit

My biggest issue with fitness trackers is the most obvious: the fact that they count every single step you take and compare it to some arbitrary standard and take away your ability to judge how much movement your body needs on its own. In an ideal world, the relationship we have with exercise, like food, should be intuitive. We are all born knowing when/how to move our bodies and when we're tired. But as we get older, diet culture stifles that intuition until we're trying to track every single calorie, minute, mile and bite. And I'm not on board with that; I want people to live their authentic lives and it's tough to do that when you're trying to quantify every moment of your day. When people go for walks I want it to be because it's nice out, because they want to appreciate their surroundings or connect with nature or to improve sleep or reduce stress- there's a plethora of valid reasons why taking a walk is beneficial (if you're medically cleared for exercise) but "because my wrist is beeping at me" isn't one of them. Competing with ourselves is a slippery slope - especially if a person has eating/weight concerns. This is especially relevant to people with a history of disordered eating or compulsive exercise, but I would argue that it has a certain degree of risk for the general population as well especially in a culture that loves to make everything a competition (seriously look at any reality TV show and tell me our culture doesn't love a good competition).

Secondly- these devices have a huge margin of error. This study showed that on average, fitness tracking devices were off on their measure of energy expenditure by 27% - with some devices being off by 93%. I'm no statistician but those are not great odds. I find it alarming that people are basing their health (or at least the way they feel about their health) on numbers that are essentially meaningless. Not to mention that weight is not as simple as calories in vs calories out (a post for another day). So even if these devices were accurate, they really don't tell us much. 

"But wait!", you may be thinking, "it's not just about calories!"

That's true. It's not. They also tell you how well you're sleeping. But I gotta tell ya- I have never owned a fitness tracker and I always have a relatively good idea of how I'm sleeping based on my energy levels. They also can track your periods (apparently)! But so can a hundred other apps (and regular old calendars). They can play music! They can connect to Bluetooth and GPS! They can tell you the time! Yes, yes, and yes. But there are plenty of other ways to do these things without potentially sending yourself into a spiral of obsession and shame. Also, I don't want a piece of plastic beeping on my wrist every hour telling me that I'm not good enough. Because even if you haven't taken a single step today, you are still enough and no device can ever take that away from you.

Look. I get that new devices and technology can be exciting. I also know that the capitalism game is sneaky. I do not believe for one single solitary second that the folks at Fitbit give a damn about your health. They just want you to fork over $200 so they can line their pockets. And the thing is- these companies are really skilled at marketing their products. And they really want you to believe it's about health. But it's worth remembering that at its peak, Fitbit was worth $11 billion (with a b). And it were up to me, every single one of those dollars would be included in the diet industry. Because more than anything, these watches take away your ability to sense your own body's needs. They trap you in rules and numbers...which sounds an awful lot like diet culture to me. 

I want my clients (and society at large) to know their bodies well enough to trust their own intuition about movement. I want people to take a rest day when their body is tired. I want people to be able to go out for a spontaneous dinner with friends even if they haven't "gotten their steps in" or be able to go for a walk on the beach without worrying about how many calories they're burning. I want people to allow for flexibility when it comes to movement, which can't happen when we're trying to live up to someone (or something) else's standard. I want people to rely on internal cues rather than external validation that what they're doing is "enough". Because you are always (alwaysalwaysalways) enough. And don't let any expensive piece of plastic tell you otherwise.

P.S. Don't get me started on introducing these devices to children. I was horrified when I went on their website to do a little research for this article and saw a device recommended for children 8+. Eight and up! When I was eight years old, I had very little concept of what walking a mile looked like and I wasn't engaging in "step challenges" with my friends and I sure as hell wasn't "tracking my progress". When I was eight years old, I was running around with my friends and riding bikes and building forts and smashing rocks (my favorite childhood past time). I didn't yet have a concept of exercise as a means to control my body and I hope I can say the same for my kids one day. I'm not going to pull out the research about what focusing on weight does in pediatric populations (right now) but....yikes Fitbit. Get it together.

 

Cover photo by Ben O'Sullivan