The idea that fitness trackers can help us achieve our health goals is one that has been force-fed to us since their inception. However, when does a ‘fitness journey’ become an obsession? Wearable technology, in the form of fitness trackers or smartwatches, has become incredibly popular, especially during the pandemic. In the healthcare sector, they are used to detect heart rate, vital signs, and the blood pressure of patients wearing them. However, the consumer demand for personal health monitoring has also exploded. Yet, scrutinizing health and fitness levels may not be a good idea for a lot of people, and gaining constant access to your biometric data could be fuelling unhealthy obsessions with food and exercise. 

The fitness tracker revolution

Fitness trackers have removed the barrier between consumer products and medical devices. Evolving from pedometers, which simply count the number of steps a person has taken, fitness trackers now possess a myriad of sensors that track personal biometric data such as heart rate and stress. Many of these features have been integrated into smartwatches, leading to a rise in their popularity. At this point, there is not much that smartwatches cannot report on.

GlobalData predicts that by 2024 the fitness tracker industry will be worth $3.9 billion, whereas smartwatches will be worth $25.2 billion. The data tracked by these devices can be accessed via smartphone apps, providing an easy-to-digest and constant report of a user’s health. Often advertised as a good motivational tool to achieve health goals, can this persistent access to personal biometric data always be beneficial?

Pursuit of perfection

Perfectionism and control, calorie counting, and strict exercise regimes are common behaviours for those with eating disorders. Wearable technology provides direct and constant access to a stream of personal data that could exacerbate these tendencies. Those suffering from eating disorders may weaponize fitness trackers to fuel their disordered behaviours.

A 2018 study found that features of compulsive eating and exercise habits were elevated in those using monitoring tools. Notably, people with anxiety also reported elevated levels of stress when looking at their heart rates on a tracker. There is a notable mindset shift from a general interest in fitness improvement, to fitness becoming an absolute, subsequently leading to a rising sense of guilt or anxiety among users if the data is not optimal. As health becomes more digitalized, manufacturers need to work alongside mental health professionals to better understand how to provide support via their devices.

How many steps have you done? Have you completed your rings?

What may begin as a positive influence on personal health could teeter into an unhealthy obsession, even for those who do not suffer from mental health problems. Consumers have started relying on data-driven tech to determine how they feel, instead of relying on themselves. Many users are fanatical about reaching their goal of ‘10,000 steps a day’ or about Apple’s smartwatch feature of “closing your rings”, for a sense of achievement.

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By GlobalData

This is especially amusing as the vaunted ‘10,000 steps a day’ was coined by the first Japanese manufacturer of a pedometer, simply because it sounded catchy. During the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games, the ‘manpo kei’ pedometer was advertised, which directly translated to a ‘10,000 steps meter.’ A large body of research did not exist behind this figure. Nonetheless, the number has stuck, and the rest is history.

A data-driven fitness society

We have become addicted to the data and the gamification of our fitness. This fixation on personal quantification also risks robbing people of the satisfaction of exercise or food. A 2016 study by Duke University revealed that those who tracked their steps walked further but enjoyed it less. There is no doubt that there are obvious positives behind these devices, from improving sleep cycles or incentivizing physical activity. However, if users become too focused on health metrics, their general awareness of how their bodies feel is reduced. Fitness trackers should be worn because they motivate users, not control them.