The Fitness Critic

The Dark Side of Your Fitbit And Fitness App

Tracking steps and inputting calories into your smart phone drown out the conversation we should be having with our bodies.

04.05.15 10:45 AM ET

We don’t trust ourselves anymore. The act of exercise is no longer a mind-to-body experience but rather a mind-to-fitness-tracker-device-to-body phenomenon.

Instead of listening to our bodies—when we need a glass of water instead of food, need a nap instead of a coffee, or become suddenly hangry after processing the 42 grams of sugar from a Starbuck’s classic chai tea latte (inducing a severe attack of hypoglycemia)—we turn to our Fitbit, Garmin, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone or one of the many other fitness trackers, or MyFitnessPal.

For the record, I’m not telling you to trash your Jawbone or delete your MyFitnessPal app. As a personal trainer, your use of a fitness tracker or food app means one thing to me: you are somewhere on the spectrum of behavior change for health, you’re curious about health, and if you sport the fitness tracker on your wrist in a pink coral color, you just love fitness jewelry.

Here’s my problem with fitness trackers and food calorie counting apps: They all rely on very limited metrics (steps taken, movement when you sleep, calorie tracking, heart rate monitor in some, and distance traveled with the movement) giving you a very skewed analysis about your health. Your health, however, is not so black and white, just like the colors of your fitness tracker. Two hours on the row machine, like Frank Underwood does, will not cancel out the pizza you ate during your House of Cards binge.

Your health depends on so many factors—cultural, genetic, whether your cat lets you sleep at night—that I find it really interesting our fascination with the extraordinary simplicity of the fitness tracker and food app scene. Yet, nearly half of all smartphone users indulge in some form of health app according to the American Journal of Medicine (and half of all Americans adults have a smartphone). That’s a lot of people using insufficient forms of data feedback to make big assumptions about their health.

When David Sedaris purchased his Fibit last summer, this small piece of technology inspired him to walk after dinner instead of sitting on the couch. When his Fitbit died, however, walking became pointless without the steps being counted or measured. Sound familiar?

I equate using a fitness tracker or food calorie tracker as a marker of dishonesty with ourselves. We are missing a pivotal step: self-reflection. It’s really easy to buy a Nike Fuel band and wear it. It’s much harder, however, to get deep with yourself.

Fitness apps are a flawed, abbreviated version of this self-reflection process. They focus too much on the number of steps, calories, or distance traveled. Fitness tracking devices distract us from what really needs to happen: we need to look at ourselves naked in the mirror and have an honest conversation with our naked self about the status of our health. From a weight-loss standpoint, it’s critical. Then let’s unplug the TV, peel ourselves off the couch (if not get rid of both the TV and couch), and buy a few free weights and a yoga mat before throwing down for a fitness tracker. The cost is about the same, but the impacts couldn’t be more different.

The quest to “knowing thyself” is distorted, not enhanced, when we let the fitness trackers and food calorie apps take over. Take the MyFitnessPal app, which scans and tracks calories. Here’s the conundrum: Our bodies do not interpret all calories to be created equal, just like legislators in Indiana don’t believe their residents are created equal, but that’s another story. Point being, tracking the calories is not going to make you any healthier because the body metabolizes calories from say, one gram of sugar, differently than it does from, say, one gram of fat. Yet, our American culture wants to simplify this concept. I recommend using the time spent logging your calories by reading Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss and learning about the plotting of the food industry instead of pretending to be a nutritionist. Better yet, use the time you spend scanning your food by watching this violent salad video and getting inspired.

I have not bought a fitness tracker to be an iconoclast. Honestly, I hear the Jawbones get smelly, break after six months, and I don’t believe the metrics will make me any healthier. The snap bracelet fad of the ‘90s is also the extent of my career wearing plastic or nickel so that I can avoid getting the cancer as long as possible. I also don’t need a device informing me of my restless nights of sleep. I can infer that by my baggy eyes in the morning. In a way, using a fitness tracker is like going to the revered and intimate Lambeau Field and being glued to the pixels of the Jumbotron instead of watching the beauty of an Aaron Rodger’s touchdown-throw from afar. The technology is eschewing the overall experience.

The battle between listening to your own body’s needs versus letting technology tell you what your body needs has begun. Call me a Luddite, but I side with your inner voice. When was the last time you wrote in a journal—dear diary—how you felt physically (energy levels), what you ate and your mood two-three hours later; or what you did for exercise (walking included) and used complete sentences? It sounds cheesy, but I’m serious. You owe it to yourself. Tracking calories from your Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup addiction in a food app is not going to solve your problems. Reflecting on how groggy you felt after eating the sugar bomb will.

Alas, a beacon of hope shines through with the Apple watch. Reason being, the Apple watch reportedly blends the quality of the movement (heart-rate?) paired with personalized reminders based on the S.M.A.R.T method. You set the parameters. The watch also relies on a larger variety of metrics and these data points could cultivate a better mind-to-body connection. Only time will tell, I’m still doubtful, but as my favorite Styx song suggests, “The problem’s plain to see: too much technology. Machines to save our lives. Machines dehumanize.”

 We should be pursuing fitness activities not for the sake of pleasing the fitness app and hitting the numbers (nor to share the length of our run in Central Park) but because exercise makes us feel better, look better, and be better.

Put another way, occasionally cover the treadmill screen with your towel at the gym and listen to your body, not your app.