Are fitness trackers a dangerous obsession?

fitness tracker - Is Wearable Fitness Technology Ruining Your Life?

Is Wearable Fitness Technology Ruining Your Life?

Recently I came across an Everyday Feminism article on Facebook, entitled “Your Fitbit is Ruining Your Relationship with Your Body”, which criticised the ‘quantified self’ trend, which basically means ‘quantifying’ our health by using wearable fitness trackers.

This immediately caught my attention because a) I love my Fitbit, and b) the title gave me the shits. It was just another of those alarmist snappy headlines so obviously designed to try and catch you mid scroll through your Newsfeed.

While this tabloid-style tactic may be a necessary evil given we live in the social media age of too much access to information and thus short attention spans, it’s scaremongering and annoying as hell. And it can undermine what is actually a really useful conversation to have.

So, acknowledging that I was already on the defensive, I sat down for a careful read of the post.  After also scanning through all the comments on Everyday Feminism’s Facebook page I decided to post my rebuttal of much of what the author, Kaila Prins claims, in defence of fitness tracking generally and people who use activity trackers.

Of course you should read the whole article yourself in order to form your own view.

Ms Prins offers three ‘reasons why’ Fitbits and other fitness trackers are apparently “ruining” your life.

  1. Self-quantification reduces the concept of health to weight loss.
  2. Self-quantification codifies weight loss as morality.
  3. Self-quantification actually reduces our quality of life.

Self-quantification reduces the concept of health to weight loss.

Kaila claims that it’s obsession with weight loss and weight control that drives people to use these tools. Her admonishment that “health is not the same thing as weight loss”, written as though most of us are semi-retarded or at the very least blind on this issue, is insulting.

While weight loss IS often the goal for many people who turn to tools and exercise trackers like a Fitbit, OR may be a logical consequence of the increased physical activity inspired by being able to track, measure and quantify our movement, this is far from where it ends.

Most of us are fully aware that weight loss and health are not the same thing and with one careless sentence the author completely disregards the huge community of people out there (as the comments on Facebook clearly demonstrate), who track their fitness and nutrition or other aspects of their health for a whole variety of reasons far beyond weight loss – to pursue athletic goals, recover from eating disorders, to manage specific health concerns such as diabetes or high cholesterol, or to monitor particular vitamins or essential minerals they might be low in, like iron, as just a few examples.

Read about self-compassion and binge eating.

fitness trackers - Self-quantification reduces the concept of health to weight loss.

For people like me for whom weight loss was, unapologetically, the original drawcard, Myfitnesspal, my heart rate monitor and my Fitbit now help me to maintain my weight through good nutrition while, as importantly, continuing to work on other health and fitness goals.

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for health and vitality and a new lease on life and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be criticised for having jumped on to some dangerous ‘fad’ or accept the accusation that I’m obsessed with weight loss.

‘Ruining your relationship with your body’ implies that relationship was in a healthy state to begin with, which is of course not necessarily the case for many of us who are drawn to using these tools in the first place.

On the contrary, a bit of ‘science’ can help you reconnect with your body and understand that it functions much like a machine, with inputs and outputs, and needs to be lovingly maintained. It demystifies questions like ‘why do I feel so crap’ or the reverse – ‘why do I feel good today when I felt like rubbish yesterday’, and possibly, ‘why aren’t I losing weight?’

Self-quantification reduces the concept of health to weight loss- on scales

Speaking from personal experience, I used to feel so disconnected from my body. We were completely estranged. I didn’t understand the mechanics of how and why ‘it’ looked and felt the way it did, and more importantly, I felt powerless and out of control.

Once I signed up to Myfitnesspal and was able to easily start keeping track of what I was eating and how much I was moving, some of that fog lifted and it became clear to me that I was not a prisoner of this uncooperative body I felt trapped in, I was in the driver’s seat.

Am I obsessed with weight loss? No, because there’s no need to be. Allowing for the impact of stress, hormones and emotional factors, as I’ve blogged elsewhere, weight loss just isn’t that big a mystery. Obsession is a pointless waste of time.

Self-quantification codifies weight loss as morality.

Kaila’s second point is that ‘society’ puts attempts to lose weight on some higher moral plain. Oh come on.  She claims that “it’s annoyingly – and exhaustingly – apparent that we live in a world that worships at the altar of health.”

If only this were actually true!

While ‘thin privilege’, unrealistic beauty standards and a constant preoccupation with women’s looks is undeniably a problem in contemporary society, the author herself earlier reminded us that health is not the same thing as weight loss.

So where is this altar of health that she’s talking about? While we’re dying under the literal weight of an obesity epidemic I’m going to remain very skeptical about claims like this. If in fact there is a moral high ground that weight loss/health occupies, I don’t see any sort of mass rush to get there.

There are fitness/health ‘movements’ like Crossfit or Paleo for example that gain an almost cult-like status among their followers, but I don’t believe this represents the majority of wearable fitness technology users.

She goes on to remind us that “perfect health and a “perfect body” is not a moral imperative”. Well, no, but I would argue that to live mindfully and consciously with full appreciation of the joys of health, IS a moral imperative.

In the Western world we are violating our bodies and squandering our potential every single day by buying in to the ‘new normal’ – overweight, unfit bodies that seldom move.

Just as the author of this piece makes some gross generalisations about people who use Fitbits and other ‘health’ activity trackers, I’m doing the same here by suggesting that a LOT of people wander through their lives without even basic knowledge of fitness and nutrition, oblivious to the damage they do to themselves through unhealthy lifestyles or feeling stuck with bodies that don’t serve them well.  

fitness trackers

She adds: “Most of us – if we just trusted ourselves a little more, dieted a little less, and added some form of joyous movement into our lives – would be able to live relatively healthily without too much drama, despite the fact that our bodies might not look the way we think they’re supposed to.”

Um… lovely idea, but again, aren’t we in the middle of an obesity epidemic in the West? I’ll argue that trusting ourselves hasn’t gotten us very far.

We’ve ‘trusted’ that somehow we could just get swept up in a culture of eating shitty food on a daily basis, encouraged by a highly corrupt food industry and somehow get away with it. Well now the consequences are catching up and people are dying young and losing enjoyment in their lives because their bodies are giving out.

That’s not something to be flippant about. This is real.

Self-quantification actually reduces our quality of life.

Ok, on this point Kaila and I are far more likely to agree.  The subtext of her argument – that we should never define ourselves by how much we weigh – that we’re worth more than the number on the scale etc – is of course absolutely spot on.

But the layers of assumption and judgement and the way she doesn’t allow for the variety of needs and styles of interacting with these tools beyond (and quite apart from) any “obsession” with weight loss detract from her argument.

Yes, it’s possible to become overly obsessed with tracking every measure of your life, but I would argue that the people who do this are the same people who would find other things to stress and obsess over or become slaves to.

The tool is the tool. How we USE those tools is of course partly socially conditioned but it’s also got quite a bit to do with our personalities and our goals.


Speaking for myself and most of the people I know who belong to this supposedly ‘obsessed’ community, yes weight loss has been important and critical for regaining our health, but we’re now committed to continuing to strengthen our relationships with our bodies and maximise the advantages of good health with fitness tracking just one of the many tools available to us.

I’m never going to have a ‘perfect’ body, or a bikini body by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. I’ll always be carrying something of a spare tyre around my belly and while it’s a spare tyre that the fashion industry would balk at, my doctor is entirely comfortable with it, and so am I, and that’s all that matters.

I can squeeze it into just about anything I really want to wear and I can trudge up mountains without it getting in my way. I’m not sure I would have reached this point without having tools to use along the way, to guide me and make me accountable to myself.

And most importantly, using fitness trackers helped demystify my health objectives. I could see the bald facts for themselves, right there on my iPhone screen.

No longer did I feel that a healthy fit body was only ever something that other people could attain and which would remain illusive to me, but as something that would be the entirely logical consequence of MY willingness to do the work.

So Are Fitness Trackers Really So Bad? Quantified Self

So Are Fitness Trackers Really So Bad?

So, although I’m a big fan of Everyday Feminism I do have concerns that body acceptance, self-love and moves towards a healthier body image, particularly for women, is going too far the other way and becoming an excuse for denial or inaction on behalf of people who actually should really be being encouraged to look after themselves better.

And those of us who are committed to a healthier lifestyle are being unfairly painted as obsessed, unhappy, self-absorbed and unenlightened.

Kaila says she’s “done” with the whole fitness tracker ‘thing’ and personally, I’m “done” with important subjects like this becoming just another opportunity for polarising debate among women.

PS. Did you like what you read here? You may like to sign up with your email to get a copy of my free weight loss eBook – How I Did It: Losing Weight the GI Gen Way, as well as newsletters and other bits and pieces straight to your inbox.

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