An estimated 1 in 5 Americans regularly used a fitness tracker or smartwatch in 2020, and the number of dedicated users continues to grow. Trackers and wearables have expanded beyond the basic pedometer, calorie tracker, or daily exercise log, offering incredible versatility and providing access to various health-related metrics. Tracking has become a source of accountability, motivation, and connection with others via apps that allow users to track and share data while offering space for friendly competition.

The Allure of Trackers and Wearables

The sophistication of trackers will likely continue expanding to include clothing items that monitor oxygen levels, heart rate, and muscular activity and wristbands that provide information on carbon dioxide levels, pH, blood pressure, oxygen, and even hydration status. The allure of tracking is undeniable. Natural human curiosity paired with sleek, trendy design and marketing is difficult to resist. Exploiting this natural curiosity has led to health-tracking apps becoming increasingly detailed in the health information provided. 

For example, Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) were designed to support individuals toward better diabetes self-management through moment-to-moment updates on blood sugar trends; however, a new wave of CGM usage has emerged. Generally, healthy individuals with no history of diabetes are now purchasing CGMs to track their blood sugar changes. Social media health and wellness influencers have popularized CGMs in the absence of diabetes by regularly using them and updating followers on the results. They share their data to show how various foods/food combinations affect blood sugar, while typically neglecting to inform followers that rises in blood sugar following meals and snacks are normal and generally non-problematic in individuals without diabetes or insulin resistance.

Are your tracking practices harmful or helpful? 

On the surface, unlimited access to our health appears to have no downsides (Knowledge is power, right?), but there’s a darker side to the growing obsession with tracking health data. 

Several studies demonstrate a link between tracking and guilt, lower enjoyment of activities, and even eating disorders. 

Answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the following screening questions:

  • Do you feel that workouts, runs, rides, etc., are “wasted” if they aren’t logged? 
  • Do your daily routines feel controlled by your [activity/calorie/health-related] tracker or wearable?
  • Do you find ways to incorporate extra movement if you have not yet closed your movement “rings?”
  • Do you experience frequent guilt for eating foods your calorie tracker deems “unhealthy” or “high-calorie?”
  • Do you experience frequent guilt for not completing your activity goals?
  • Do you avoid eating foods you enjoy to avoid entering them into your calorie tracker?
  • Do you find yourself increasing your activity to increase your step count/workout intensity but enjoying movement less?
  • Do you veer from the un-trackable movement you enjoy to see the stats?
  • Do you obsessively analyze your CGM data and notice increasing anxiety over foods that might raise blood sugar?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above, you’re not alone, and you’re likely experiencing the dark side of tracking, and there is a cost associated with this that goes beyond the dollars spent on the tracker or wearable itself. Saying “Yes” to intensive tracking often means saying “No” to being present – in your body, surroundings, and with your closest family and friends. 

The Dark Side of Tracking 

Beyond potential harm, monitoring internal processes such as oxygen levels, blood sugar, pH, and muscular activity is typically unnecessary and can often provide inaccurate data or information with wide margins of error. In generally healthy individuals without chronic illness, the body accurately and precisely maintains these biological processes through its highly sophisticated ability to maintain homeostasis. 

Intensive tracking leaves out and may interfere with important facets of overall health and well-being, like relationship quality, stress levels, emotional regulation skills, the ability to set healthy boundaries, and more. 

In short, tracking can be enticing, catering to our curiosity and understandable desire to be informed about our health. Though marketed to improve connection to our bodies and health, tracking more often DISCONNECTS us from our body’s signals, reduces enjoyment, and even exacerbates guilt and disordered eating behaviors. 

Move away from monitoring external data toward exploring internal cues. 

Bodies provide excellent information about our internal states without a need for numbers. If you’ve found yourself experiencing the darker side-effects of tracking: 

  • Begin working toward reconnection to internal cues via interoceptive awareness (the ability to detect internal signals, interpret them correctly, and respond accordingly). 
  • Try monitoring subtle hunger and fullness cues before, during, and after eating instead of calorie intake. 
  • Focus on the enjoyment and pleasure aspects of workouts instead of calories burned or time invested. 
  • Go for a walk or run without a step or mileage tracker and focus on how your body responds to the movement. Pay attention to moments you need to rest versus pick up the pace! 
  • Use mindful eating strategies at meals, including slowing down, reducing distractions, and focusing on satisfaction. 
  • Reach out to the Registered Dietitians at Memphis Nutrition Group for guidance and support toward embracing your body with trust and acceptance, nourishing it with whole foods, staying attuned, and reconnecting your body and mind. 

Monitoring internal cues rather than externalizing internal data will save your mind, and pocketbook, from unnecessary data and decrease the risk of obsessive tracking behaviors. 

By Emily Gause, MA, RDN, LDN