After an intense CrossFit session this past June, I grabbed my phone and started tapping and swiping to record my health stats for the day. That’s when I noticed I hadn’t met my step goal.
There I was, still dripping sweat after an intense workout, in need of a recovery snack, but instead of giving my body what it needed, I was trying to meet a (mostly arbitrary) step goal set by a gadget on my wrist. My tracker didn’t know I was tired and had just used up all of my energy during my workout, yet I was letting it make me feel like a failure.
My relationship with my step tracker was healthy, at first.
When I first started using it, I learned my typical step count was closer to 4,000 than the recommended 10,000 per day, which encouraged me to get up and move a little more when I could. (For the record, the CDC suggests adults log 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, but that 10,000 step recommendation is basically a made up number.) But after a while, the colorful charts and happy emojis that gave me encouragement to take the long way home started stressing me out. For example, when I saw I had reached 9,500 steps for the day, I focused on the 500 steps I hadn’t taken instead of the thousands I had.
For many people, exercise and food trackers encourage health-seeking behaviors. The devices and apps provide a reality check for how much physical activity they’re actually getting. Plus, the social aspect of sharing goal progress can provide a supportive community, an encouraging cheering squad, which is quite valuable for many.
“People find [trackers] very motivating,” says Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., psychology professor at Boise State University, “and they feel guilty when they don’t use them. That can be good and bad.”
Tracking is healthy when it motivates you to take a walk and when you enjoy watching your progress, Pritchard says. But a red flag that tracker usage is becoming unhealthy is if it interferes with things you’d usually do. For example, you start skipping plans with friends or family in order to work out or avoid eating “bad” foods. My obsession didn’t get that far, but instead of making me feel good about what I had done, my tracker often left me feeling guilty and lazy.
When you first start using a tracker, it can provide new, helpful information—like how much effort it takes you to step 10,000 times each day, and what a normal activity level is for you and how you feel when you start moving more. But once you have a baseline for how many steps you take on a typical day, you can get a feel for how much effort it takes to meet your goals. Obsessively checking progress throughout the day doesn’t give you any new information.
That’s when a tracking device use can take an unhealthy turn, as it did for me. I even found myself getting mad at my tracker (hey! I just carried a 3-year-old up a hill, shouldn’t you give me extra credit for that?!), yet I didn’t take it off.
Particularly if you know you’re prone to anxiety as I am, or tend to focus on numbers, there’s no shame in skipping the tracker trend.
As tracking apps and devices get more popular, Pritchard says she hears more stories of unhealthy use, like trying to get in steps despite injury or being sick with the flu. “Sometimes we get so focused on the numbers that we stop listening to our bodies,” she said. “If you’re tired or ill, your body [will be] telling you, ‘No, not today.’” Listen to it.
For me, the problem wasn’t just step tracking. I was also entering my food, obsessing over hitting a specific mix of macros and micros in my diet. Every day, red bars reminded me of the vitamins and minerals I didn’t adequately ingest. Even before getting out of bed in the morning, I faced a shaming graph detailing how many times I was restless throughout the night.
“One of the downfalls of the trackers is many report several things,” Pritchard said. “Sometimes they give us too much information. They don’t know that we’re just trying to focus on this one thing.”
It’s easy for our egos to take a beating when we see all the things we failed to accomplish—even if they’re things we weren’t trying to accomplish in the first place.
Pritchard has a smart and simple solution that might help: Check the settings on your tracking device or app to see if you can hide the things you don’t want to track. You might even find that you accomplish your one goal faster when you’re not distracted by information you don’t want, Pritchard notes. She says she’s experienced this anecdotally. She once gave her students an assignment to change a health habit and found that the students who focused on just one thing were more successful than the ones who tried to change five things at once.
A gym buddy or reward system may be a healthier motivator for you. And if you do choose a tracker? There’s no need to wear it every day.
There are a ton of great tactics you can use to motivate yourself to exercise. Finding a workout buddy, planning your schedule in advance, and curating a killer playlist, are just a few of many ideas you might want to try. The bottom line is that if a tracker becomes more of a burden than a help, there are so many other places you can turn to for some extra encouragement.
If you do want to still wear a tracker, Pritchard suggests only using it periodically to check in on your progress. “When you first get it, use it for a week,” she suggests. “Then put it away until you want to check back in.” If you decide to wear it daily, pay attention to your behavior. If at any point you start to feel like it’s becoming a negative thing, put it away, she says. “You can always take it out again” after a break, but some time off may help you learn to rely on it less.
Since my day of reckoning after CrossFit, my tracker sits uncharged in a drawer, so I can’t obsess over steps not taken. When I do decide to track my food, I only track for a few days, and I’m careful to only focus on one nutrient at a time.
By pulling back on my tracking, I’ve also learned to listen to my body more. I don’t need a heart-rate tracker on my wrist to tell me I haven’t cooled down enough to get off the treadmill yet. I know what that feels like. Now nothing gets between me and my post-workout recovery snack.