Streaks, pushes and goals: Is your fit tech really as healthy as you think?

After months of enduring the tight restrictions of the Covid crisis, like many of us, Sam Claydon discovered his trousers were getting a little tighter around the waist than usual. 

Aware that if he did nothing to combat his ‘lockdown layer’ it would only continue, the London-based lawyer decided to take action.

Throughout my life I was always skinny and fairly active, but for the first time I had a little bit of a belly and couldn’t fit into my clothes anymore,’ recalls Sam. 

Being among the 100million-plus people who own an Apple watch across the globe, in August 2021 he enlisted its many fitness-based functions to help him shape up. 

‘I’d owned the watch for a while, so I stepped up my exercise routine and put more emphasis on ensuring I was filling the rings every day,’ he explains. ‘And I wasn’t just stopping there – I was often achieving double my target.’

The rings Sam refers to are a slick user interface (UI) that are part of Apple’s activity app, linking to the watch. Empty at the start of each day, they slowly fill up in line with the user activity detected. A red ‘Move’ ring represents how many active calories you’ve burned. The green ‘Exercise’ ring shows how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve done. And the blue ‘Stand’ ring shows how many times in the day you’ve stood and moved for at least one minute per hour.

However, his desire to keep fit with the help of his watch, soon tipped over into an obsession.

With every day that passed, Sam became increasingly worried about being able to meet the targets that were set by his device. After around a month of using the smartwatch religiously to measure his fitness output, he started going to extraordinary lengths to ensure he doesn’t miss hitting his activity goals. Something he still does today.

‘If I’ve had a crazy day at work, I’ll sometimes take the dog for a walk – even at midnight – to keep the activity up,’ admits Sam. ‘Even though I’m still smashing my goals, I get very anxious when it shows me that the trend is going downward, even by a little bit.’

According to Dr Marianne Trent, Clinical Psychologist and founder of Good Thinking Psychological Services, when it comes to wearable fitness tech, such as Apple Watches and Fitbits, the balance between healthy and unhealthy is a fine line. 

‘For people prone to more compulsive styles of thinking there’s a risk that trackers can feed into dysmorphic-type thoughts and disordered eating and exercise targets,’ she explains. 

‘I have seen first-hand in clinical practice that not meeting goals or falling short of targets can have negative implications for people. Missing these goals has led to them having negative thoughts, lowered mood and even strategies such as restrictive eating or binging and purging.’

However, in contrast, smashing goals and meeting expectations can often lead to feelings of euphoria and improved self-esteem, and might explain the appeal and success wearables continue to have in today’s mainstream market.

‘For any of us, activity trackers can act as validation and reassurance that we are doing okay,’ Dr Marianne adds. ‘However, like anything in mental health, we learn that reassurance never reassures and actually the change which needs to happen is to be able to reassure ourselves that we are good enough.’

Whether it’s activity-tracking bracelets, clip-on pedometers or dedicated smartwatches, there’s no doubt that these connected gadgets have quickly become the de facto standard for keeping tabs on our health.

Every year, perhaps since Fitbit released its first step counter in 2010, they have snowballed in popularity – a trend that looks unlikely to shift anytime soon. According to new research from analyst giant CCS Insight, the wearables market saw a 20% growth in 2021, with over 232million wrist-worn, connected devices sold worldwide. 

The same report found that the ability to track activity and health is what’s driving this demand. Two-thirds of the study’s participants said health-tracking features were ‘the most important factor’ in choosing which device to go for, particularly sleep-tracking and heart rate monitoring. 

However, with products getting smarter and slicker in line with technological capabilities and customer demand, brands are also competing to be the best. 

Take, for instance, how many use heart rate monitoring sensors to calculate the number of calories we’ve burned in a given day, and let us track a specific sport or activity to show us how many more we’ve achieved during exercise. Wearable companies have since become far more aware that people need more than just data to be motivated to exercise more frequently; for it to become a habit. 

On top of that, many of the fit-tech brands we’ve come to know and love now hold users to account through the setting of targets and goals, which – once achieved – become rewards in the form of animated trophies, points or any other kind of positive reinforcement or motivational commendation. 

Alongside the Apple Watch rings, Fitbit has a similar strategy, with a step counter sitting proudly at the centre of its app dashboard. As this fills up the users receive trophies to recognise different achievements. You’ll get a ‘Lighthouse’ badge for walking up 50 floors in a day, for instance. Garmin, too, uses badges to recognise achievements attained on its fitness trackers but based on a point-earning system. 

On the flipside, in most cases, wearable apps have also been designed to detect when a user has been sedentary or inactive for what it deems a long period of time through its built-in motion sensors. 

Not stood up for an hour? It will nudge you in the form of an app notification or on-screen alert, reminding you that you’re not quite doing enough to stay fit – or worse – you might lose out on achieving your daily goal. 

Perhaps more compelling is that almost all wearable brands add an extra layer of (longer-term) accountability through ‘streaks’, a system which scores you on how many days you can attain your movement or step goals, consecutively. Miss your daily 10,000 steps goal for the first time in a week and you break your streak. Big disappointment. 

There’s no doubt that this ‘gamifying’ of fitness has become a very popular way for wearable makers to incentivise their consumers to be more active and make healthier choices. And it has been proven to work. 

One recent study published in JMIR mHealth and uHealth, found that wearables are linked to increases in physical activity as they make it easier for exercise to become part of daily life. 

Put simply, wearers of smart devices are much more inclined to walk and run than those without. But is the constant reminder of your contribution to health actually all that… healthy? 

The addictive nature of technology is well documented. According to Harvard University, self-disclosure in social networking, for instance, lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance. This is because it rewires reward pathways in our brains by giving us a dopamine hit every time we receive a mention or a ‘like’. 

Wearables also play a similar role, by rewarding us for completing a task. Ths, coupled with the fact that they are designed to motivate and encourage healthier actions, but don’t necessarily recognise when you’re overdoing it, or when it’s time to give you a break – can be a recipe for disaster. 

However, it’s not just wearables that are doing this. There’s apps such as Strava and Nike+ – which can connect to activity trackers – that help us log runs, walks and cycles. Or calorie counters, like My Fitness Pal, which work out how many are coming in and going out, while politely reminding you if you haven’t logged a meal.

On top of that, we can now get regular notifications from our banks, TV streaming accounts, inphone games, even our beloved Kindles… All gently reminding us of things we need to be be aware of.

With all this going on, there’s little wonder that, for some, the ‘helpfulness’ of tech can often feel overwhelming.

Sam admits that these days if he’s ‘only marginally’ exceeded his target, it makes him feel ‘sad and disappointed’.

‘I feel like I haven’t pushed myself hard enough,’ he adds.

This frustration has proven to manifest itself negatively in different aspects of his life, such as ruining social events. One day, while visiting his family, Sam left his watch charger behind and wasn’t able to locate one while away. 

‘I felt anxious but also angry that I wasn’t going to be able to meet my goals as my Apple Watch wouldn’t have power, and it pretty much spoiled my weekend with them as a result,’ he remembers.

Chester-based meditation teacher Chloë Webster says she encountered similar issues with a wearable after purchasing a Fitbit and discovering it had a sleep tracker.

Working in the same way as a smartwatch does when it’s monitoring exercise, the tracker keeps tabs on your vitals during the night using sensors. It not only tells you how much sleep you’re getting, but can also identify the quality and pinpoint any potential issues. Many smartwatches have these sleep tracking capabilities built in, as standard.

‘I only did it out of curiousity as it was inbuilt in my smartwatch,’ remembers Chloe who is the founder of Girl Meditates. ‘But it actually made my sleep worse!

‘I soon became obsessed with how much I was getting, what times I woke up and trying to figure out why I was waking up at that time.’

She admits that it soon had a knock on effect on her mental health, causing her to feel anxious during the day.

‘I almost felt like a failure when I got up in the morning and knew I hadn’t hit the “target” of sleep,’ Chloë remembers. ‘It would make me go into the day feeling rubbish which then caused anxiety if I had a busy day ahead, as I’d be stressing that a lack of sleep could impact my work.’

Chloë eventually decided to ditch her tracker when she realised her lack of sleep was more down to worrying about the results.

‘It was really having an effect on my daily life and so I decided to go cold turkey,’ she says. 

‘I’ve come to realise that modern gadgets like wearables are great in moderate consumption and have made life a lot easier for a lot of people but for me, I had to find that happy medium.’

In fact, it’s made Chloë reassess her whole relationship with tech.

‘I realised the push motivations on my phone were becoming detrimentaI to my mental health,’ she explains. ‘The constant reminders, buzzes and nudges from notifications on apps and even my online banking were raising my anxiety levels.

‘I’d be always checking my phone and entering into the magnetic pull of the doomscroll within seconds and realised I needed to put a stop to it. So I put limits on my phone, switching all apps off after an hour and keeping the phone out of the bedroom. It’s been a game changer.’

While this type of experience might not be the case for every tech and wearable owner, the way these devices are marketed – to only have a positive impact on one’s health – is perhaps up for debate.  

The need to goal-smashing is something that has been found in some eating disorders, such as Orthorexia Nervosa. The condition involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and – unlike similar disorders that are focused on losing weight – mostly revolves around food quality, not quantity. 

‘While I absolutely advocate a healthy lifestyle, an obsession with step counts or goals can quickly fall into the “over exercise” or eating disorder category,’ explains psychotherapist and eating disorder counsellor, Ruth Micallef (MBACP).

‘This behaviour is very much overlooked and under-diagnosed due to “wellness culture’s” insistence that we should track everything from our steps and sleep, to how regularly we go to the bathroom.

‘When we monitor every area of our lives, we stop intuitively listening to our bodies. We become reliant on what a piece of technology is telling us about our health, rather than how well and healthy we actually feel.’

Ruth explains that in the field of psychology, Orthorexia Nervosa is a subheading of Perfectionistic Overcontroller (POC) – a ‘coping mode’ people can develop in life to protect them from further adversity.

‘These emerge post trauma when it has not been processed due to a lack of permission or support,’ she says. ‘POC attempts to keep us “safe” by controlling every area of our lives in search of “perfection”, thinking it will save us from things like humiliation, rejection, disappointment, or trauma.

‘When we live in the “POC”, we might be overcompensate in life by “clean” eating or over exercising, just to name a few. Smartwatches can inevitably enable these coping behaviours, pushing us into disordered eating patterns.’

So what’s the alternative? While ditching the wearable might be the only solution for some, others might find it a little extreme. 

It was a dilemma Art therapist, Lyni Sargent faced when she realised she was getting obsessed with clocking 10,000 steps a day, no matter what. 

‘I would march on the spot brushing my teeth, run up and down the stairs several times, I felt like I needed the validation,’ she remembers. 

However, Lyni reached a point where she knew it was a detriment to her daily life, getting in the way of her completing everyday errands. ‘I figured life is a challenge enough,’ she says.

Lyni still enjoys using her smartwatch for exercise – especially for checking the data after a run – but she’s learned to execute balance by simply setting her calorie targets much lower, so that filling her rings is more achievable. 

‘I still love the achievement that I get when I close all the rings,’ she adds. ‘And I’d like to say that I’m in full control, but the truth is that I’ve learnt how to cheat so that I’m in control of how my watch controls me.’

In order to have the best possible relationship with your wearable, the key is to remember why you bought the gadget in the first place, says Dr Marianne.

‘Instead of ditching it completely, try thinking about what your primary goals for it were,’ she explains.

‘Perhaps you wanted to use it as a prompt to be more active and try to get back on track with those goals in a way which feels helpful for you.’

Ultimately, to maintain a healthy relationship we need to consider the tracker as being ‘on our team’, she says, adding, ‘rather than acting as our nemesis.’

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk 

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