If you’re really into exercising and living a healthy lifestyle, chances are you own a fitness tracker. These nifty little devices took the fitness world by storm and now it seems that almost everyone owns one. But are they good for everyone? New research suggests that these trackers might actually do some people more harm than good.

According to the Independent, previous research has shown that monitoring our own behavior helps us to build sustainable habits. Tracking our fitness also helps us to engage in more physical activity and in turn lose extra weight. That sounds great, and for some, these trackers are very helpful; but because it tracks, well basically everything, from your nutrition to your sleep and how many steps you take per hour, it could be a trigger for eating disorders.

Fitness trackers and eating disorders

People with eating disorders already have an unhealthy relationship with food and thus tracking their nutrition and calories burned isn’t the best idea. They tend to obsess over these things, and fitness trackers could cause them to obsess even more.

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This seems pretty obvious when you think about it (and many people have suspected this already) and now a small body of research has started to look into how fitness trackers and calorie counting apps might be encouraging disordered eating. “Disordered eating” here refers to both eating disorders as well as general unhealthy eating habits, like compulsive eating or skipping meals.

What do recent studies say?

Back in 2017, a study by Courtney C. Simpson and Suzanne E. Mazzeo was done to investigate the possibility of fitness trackers causing eating disorders. 493 Undergraduate students made up of 345 women and 148 men took part in the study. They were asked to report their height and weight and was then asked to fill out a questionnaire which measures eating disorder symptomatology, known as the Eating Disorder Examination-Questionnaire, a.k.a. the EDE-Q. In the end, they were asked if they use any kind of fitness tracking technology, whether it be a FitBit or calorie-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal. The study showed that the questionnaires of those who said that they use fitness tracking devices showed an increase in eating disorder symptomology.

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The main culprit isn’t what you think it is

In the research paper, the authors pointed out that it is actually fitness tracking that’s the main culprit instead of calorie tracking: “Interestingly, fitness tracking, but not calorie tracking, emerged as a unique indicator of ED symptomatology. This finding suggests that activity monitoring might be more aligned with disordered eating attitudes and behaviors than calorie tracking.” Whoah, who would’ve thought?

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According to Simpson and Mazzeo, these results prove that people are using fitness tracking technology to exercise more for appearance than they do for health benefits. However, they do point out that this technology isn’t inherently harmful. You won’t suddenly “get” an eating disorder from using it, but it can have a negative impact on people who are already obsessed with exercise, counting their calories, and monitoring their food intake.

Other studies support this

Another study that was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders has shown similar results – people who use tracking tools have higher levels of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating than those who don’t. Also, many patients with eating disorders have admitted that they use calorie counting tools like MyFitnessPal.

Weight loss and fitness apps refuse to admit that they might be the problem

The creators of these fitness and calorie counting apps do, of course, not think that their apps are the problem, much like Kurbo (Weight Watchers‘ app for kids), were said to encourage healthy habits and nothing more. Yet it still labels certain foods as “bad”. That seems to be the tune all weight loss apps are singing. Creators of these apps say that “they promote healthy lifestyles, and safeguards [are] in place to deter those wishing to pursue harmful habits.” MyFitnessPal cites its inclusion of recourses on eating disorders on its website as a precaution that’s in place to prevent people from developing a negative relationship with food and exercise. Recently, the app even published blog posts that promoted the app’s ability to help people recover from eating disorders. Research, however, seems to indicate that this is not the case.

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Both studies show that trackers have a link to eating disorders

The aforementioned study tried to understand why people use tracking devices and how it affects their mental health and wellbeing. The study was done on young people of which 65 percent reported that they currently use a fitness or food intake tracking device. Those who reported using these devices once again showed higher levels of disordered eating and compulsive exercise. Those who didn’t use any trackers at the time didn’t show any of these symptoms.

The reason fitness trackers are a potential problem

The study was also quick to point out that these trackers aren’t necessarily the cause of disordered eating, but that it could encourage it in people who are already vulnerable to it. It went on to say that monitoring exercise and food intake could cause people to validate their disordered eating and exercise attitudes. These devices also “pressure” you to be constantly active by encouraging you to move and meet your step targets and then increasing it as you reach your goal. This could cause people to obsess and be critical of themselves when they don’t reach the goals the tracker sets for them.

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Many people ditch their trackers after a year

Interestingly enough, recent evidence showed that only 10 percent of those who use fitness trackers will continue to do so a year after initially starting to wear them. Why this happens is unclear, but experts think it might be due to the fact that these trackers make many people feel guilty when they don’t reach their goals or make enough progress. Also, when the tracker causes your attitude to change from “wanting” to exercise to “having” to exercise, it’s a sign of a toxic relationship and could cause increased vulnerability to disordered eating.

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More research needs to be done

In order to confirm that these devices should come with a warning label for certain people, more studies need to be done. One of the main suggestions is that companies developing this technology should work alongside eating disorder professionals to ensure that the apps and devices provide the appropriate and necessary signposting and support.

Mindfulness is key

If you love your fitness tracker, that’s great. There’s no harm in having one if you use it mindfully for the right reasons and know that you’re not prone to eating disorders. Before getting one, ask yourself why you want one. How often do you want to track your exercise and nutrition? For what reason? It’s important that you’ll still be able to enjoy your regular exercise with or without a fitness tracker. After all, nothing feels as good as indulging in a yummy yin yoga class without worrying about how many calories it will burn. We should see these trackers as something that can guide us, but it should never rule our lives or impact the way we approach our regular exercise routines.

Do you own a fitness tracker? Do you agree with these studies that it has the potential to be harmful? Sound off in the comments. 

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