Writer Anna Richards used her fitness tracker to publicly share every physical activity she did.Was this the sign of a healthy lifestyle or an unhealthy addiction?
My obsession with fitness trackers started in March 2020. Unemployed, bored and unhappy, I recorded every run and home workout, uploading it publicly for my friends to see. Like so many other people at the time, I had control over very few aspects of my life, and few things made me feel proud.
So, while some people shared photos of homemade banana bread during lockdown, I shared 10k PBs.
I bought my first smartwatch. Nothing screamed ‘late 20s’ like covering a wrist tattoo that was a souvenir from a boozy, girls’ holiday with a device that monitored my step count.
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As 2020 progressed, I notched up the hours, my running speed increased and my virtual trophy cabinet filled. I signed up for monthly alerts that told me how many miles I’d covered and how many hours of activity I’d logged.
And when lockdown eased, I returned to work and my social life eventually recovered to pre-Covid levels. Still, I carried on obsessively logging my exercise, even if it was something as small and functional as the 10-minute cycle to the gym.
It has taken me two and a half years to question why I feel a need to share my sporting activities online. Do any of the followers who reward my hard work with ‘kudos’ really care?
What happens when you stop using fitness tracking apps?
Intent on working that out, I went fitness tracker cold turkey. I competed in a local running race without sharing my route and speed on social media. I cycled to work without pushing myself to complete ‘segments’ of my commute faster because I wasn’t recording it. It felt good.
I didn’t miss the accountability that I often feel to post a run on days when I’ve run slower in order to seem ‘real’ online. And it actually allowed me to accept that rather than wanting to record the peaks and throughs of fitness, a large part of my need to record is to do with a voice in my head that says if I don’t upload training, I’ll get slower, exercise less and lose motivation. After all, we run faster in races than when training and surely that’s partly because people are watching.
Gary Bloom, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), says that even if we think that tracking fitness is part of a healthy lifestyle, it’s a form of addiction, just like a dependence on alcohol or food.
“Unless you’re a professional athlete being accompanied by a trainer, an obsession with tracking and sharing hides underlying issues, and I’d be trying to find out what those issues are,” says Bloom. “It’s like covering a badly damaged floor with a pretty rug.”
Worse still, sharing my sporting activities could be hurting other people.
“Put bluntly, it can make other people feel like shit,” says Bloom. “All social media versions of ourselves are heavily curated, and if you’re tracking fitness publicly, you’re doing so for external validation. That’s not only damaging yourself, but it’s also harmful to others who didn’t go for ‘that run’ today.”
Like most of my generation, I’ve experimented with calorie control, yo-yo dieting, and obsessive exercise. Even now, at 30 and infinitely more confident in my skin than when I was 14, I worry that as an outdoor writer, people doubt my ability because I don’t look like an athlete. Did I feel that publicly sharing all the exercise I was doing lent me credibility that my short, stocky legs couldn’t give?
“Sharing data about how much exercise we’re doing is new, but the problem is an age-old one,” says Bloom. “Twenty years ago, people obsessed over a number on the scales. Ask yourself, why are you so worried about what you look like?”
For many people, though, recording activities is highly motivational and helps us improve. It seems at best blunt to write off all amateur athletes as having a problem if they wish to use Strava or the Nike Run app.
Dr James Newman, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Sheffield Hallam University and a chartered psychologist, says that public trackers are rarely motivating.
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“Sometimes, with the help of a professional, tracking exercise can help us to achieve our goals,” he says. “In some individuals, it can lead to better results, but not always. As a motivational strategy, getting your reward for exercise through external validation is challenging and risky. What happens when you’re not doing your best? It can be deflating and demotivating.”
For long-term gains, Newman believes that we should be looking for motivation from within, not publicly shared data on an app.
“The important thing is that the individual feels stimulated and enjoys the exercise that they’re doing,” says Newman. “These are long-term, healthy choices, and the physical gains will follow.”
So maybe the nuance here is that tracking apps can be great… if you’re uploading them for you to review and no one else. If you’re working out every day in the hope of getting a boost from your followers, perhaps that’s where the problems lie.
Fitness tracking apps can be motivating and community building
For many of us, seeing progression does feel satisfying, even if we’ll never be Olympic athletes. Exercise trackers, as with all social media platforms, can help to connect us to people that have the same interests.
Writer and recreational trail runner Ashley Parsons finds that tracking runs helps her to pace herself on routes, and she’s met a whole community of trail runners where she lives through sharing her activities publicly. She also looks up routes that other users have undertaken to get inspiration for fresh challenges.
“A run that I regularly do has 1,500m of climbing,” says Parsons. “Knowing when I’ve got to the 700m point helps me to pace myself for the rest. It’s motivational too, seeing myself getting faster or earning the fastest title on a section makes my brain light up.”
Most of us use at least one form of social media, so should public fitness tracker platforms be demonised any more than sharing an Instagram story? Perhaps tracking fitness doesn’t have to be an indicator of underlying issues, just a product of our lifestyle, where every sneeze is recorded publicly.
Whatever anyone else’s reason for using them, I’m giving tracking all of my activities the boot. If I need to record an activity (like a new hiking trail I’m writing about), I won’t share it publicly. As a results-oriented person, I’m curious as to whether this will affect my performance and speed. Will I care? Should I care?
Intentions are all well and good, but as I write this, my smartwatch is still covering my wrist tattoo.
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