Colette Sheridan: The dark-side of Fitbit is fanatical, boring wellness junkies

Addicted to your fitness tracker? All this focus on health, this accumulation of information about your body, is a bit of a disease, so says Colette Sheridan
Colette Sheridan: The dark-side of Fitbit is fanatical, boring wellness junkies

KEEPING TRACK: 92 million people use fitness apps in the US — but are they a good idea or not? Picture: Stock

ARE you a Fitbit fanatic, religiously counting your daily steps, calories consumed and monitoring your sleep cycle with almost the zeal of an Olympic sportsperson?

All this focus on health, this accumulation of information about your body, is a bit of a disease, ironically enough. It makes people anxious about dining out in restaurants.

It’s one hell of a killjoy, guaranteeing to make non-users of this and other similar apps, yawn at the obsessive nature of the user.

A new study from NUI Galway, published last week, examines how fitness apps can affect the wellbeing of the user. These apps are big business. In the US alone, 92 million people use fitness apps, contributing to a market volume of $602m in 2019.

The research found that fitness apps can lead to both positive and negative outcomes, depending on the person’s social motivation for using the app. People who use fitness apps for reciprocation (giving support and encouragement to other exercisers) “are more likely to have a harmonious passion for their exercise and ultimately lower life stress. In contrast, people who use the app for social recognition (i.e. to receive praise and public endorsements for their exercise activities) are more likely to develop an obsessive passion for physical exercise and suffer higher life stress in the long run.”

The majority of exercisers now use digital technology “to track and share their workout data in order to support their fitness goals,” said Dr Eoin Whelan, the main author of the study.

“But these fitness apps can be a double-edged sword. Our study suggests fitness sharing apps can certainly help seed and sustain exercise routines, but there is a danger that some users may develop obsessive tendencies, which need to be avoided.”

He cites social features of fitness apps which promote self-recognition, such as posting only positive workout data or photos. This can be linked to unhealthy perceptions of exercise and burn-out in the long run. In contrast, fitness app social features which promote giving support and commenting on colleagues’ activities are likely to lead to better outcomes.

What about apps in the workplace? The study points out to employers the risks and responsibilities of giving employees free fitness apps and incorporating fitness apps as part of employee wellness programmes.

Dr Whelan says that the study has “shed light on the dark side of fitness app engagement in that they may indirectly lead to greater burnout. If the organisation supports fitness app use among employees, they should also be responsible for ensuring the employee maintains control over their exercise patterns.

“One possible solution could be for the organisation to monitor the exercise log files of employees and assess these for signals of exercise obsession.”

This throws up the possibility of uncomfortable meetings with the boss where you are admonished for, or alerted to, excessive exercise patterns. Talk about being owned by a company that would incorporate such ‘caring’ interventions. Could people just take the stairs instead of the lift without monitoring such activity?

Why must every morsel of food that passes through our lips and every movement be digitally registered? We are surely living in a neurotic age, becoming wellness junkies. Never before have we had such health insights. But as Texas-based psychologist, medical doctor and author of ‘Stop Worrying About Your Health’, Dr George Zgourides says, this endless amount of data contributes to a culture of health anxiety. He has noticed that for people excessively concerned about health issues, they can inadvertently damage mental health and relationships.

Not to mention decreasing the enjoyment of exercise as a hobby and adding worry to eating, which should be one of life’s pleasures and not just fuel for the body. A 2017 study in ‘Eating Behaviours’ found associations between the use of calorie-counting and/or fitness tracking devices and eating disorder symptoms among college students. And a 2016 survey of female Fitbit users found that nearly 60% felt that their days were controlled by their devices. Also, some 30% said the gadget was an enemy that made them feel guilty. Which is why I’m trying to hold out and not use the Fitbit app. There’s enough to feel guilty about without daily despairing about one’s shortcomings on the exercise and eating front.

Of course, eating disorders existed long before Fitbit and diet apps came on the scene. But these gadgets can exacerbate underlying issues. There may be a high use of them but have they really made us healthier? Not at all. Just more boring. Who wants to hear about how many steps you take on any given day and how few calories you are consuming? Really, it would drive one to the chocolate shelf in the supermarket. A tracker-free life will rid you of self-flagellation. Eat less and move more. It aint rocket science.

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