Do Fitness Trackers Have a Dark Side? The Exercise Strikes Back

Unless you’ve been living under Iraq and haven’t read my stuff before, you know I got into using a fitness tracker at the same time I began this blog. A look at my list of post titles will show many with numbers of miles I’ve ridden the day before, that week, month or year. And while my Garmin vivoactive 3 music watch and the Strava application have certainly helped motivate me and keep me accountable, there are also some negatives. Aside from the data and privacy concerns, who’s the servant and who’s the master? Welcome to the Dark Side, Luke. And by Luke, I mean you.

Source: Mashable

Fitbit, Garmin, Apple, and many other companies make these “wearables,” and there are plenty of articles about them. One in the good column comes from Forbes: Wearable Fitness Trackers Could Help Detect COVID-19 Cases. Here’s the thing with any technology:  it’s a tool. It can be used for good or for evil. For example, a nail gun can help a construction worker build a house. Or a killer could use it for, erm, less constructive purposes. The Arab Uprising occurred thanks to Facebook, but so did US election tampering by Russia. Well, same thing goes for fitness trackers. Accidentally divulge the locations of US military bases? Not good. Or help me cycle the distance of the equator in under five years. Prettay, prettay, prettay good.

These devices are very popular, and they collect all sort of information in the process. They: buzz when it’s time to get up and move; count your steps; record your heart rate; measure hours and stages of sleep (less accurately than advertised); tell you when you have met your fitness goals; and much more. But while the intent may be good, the fact is, these companies are harvesting your data. Some may be reselling it, or other companies may be getting a hold of it through other, more nefarious methods. And that data could be used against you. Obviously I’m against that, but it’s a topic for other bloggers to get into.

The point I’m making is about sports psychology. Can fitness trackers enable people to exercise too much? Definitely, but they don’t have to. Now, what is too much is highly subjective. From my own experience, I can tell you that numbers motivate me. I don’t know why, but let’s look at what happens when you’re doing a run, walk, bike ride, swim, or any other activity involving distance. So you’re ready to call it quits when you look at your device. Let’s say you’re a cyclist who just spent an hour riding around, and your watch says 9.9 miles. How many people would NOT go that extra .10 to make it an even 10? I’m betting if you’re honest, most would go for it.

Copyright Strava

That’s not a big deal — it’s a tenth of a mile. But what about when it’s a regular or even daily goal, of say 22 miles? You workout even when you don’t feel like it — you’re tired, hungry, or you have a headache. But if you’re a fathlete like me, you have fitness goals calling you, and your device is sitting there taunting you. Somehow, you make yourself get dressed and out the door and back on that horse. You crank out the distance, maybe slower than usual, and probably not enjoying it as much as if you were feeling rested. And you may even risk a crash because your brain is so tired that your decision-making ability is a bit impaired. Or you’re literally just about to fall over from exhaustion. These things can and do happen whether you have a fitness tracker or not.

Is that the tracker’s fault? No, but it didn’t speak up and say, “Hey, Dude! I see you’ve been working out pretty consistently. Why not take a rest day, man?” In my case, it’s been over a year riding every day. Which is good but also a bit, I dunno, extra. Even the super fit take a day off. But the screens say – no, exhort you — to go, man, go. So again, you go.

Right there is a good reason to ignore your fitness tracker and turn it off or maybe even throw it in the trash. But we are unable to quit not only because not only are we currently too legit (thank you LL Cool J), we understand that any exercise involves some degree of struggling and suffering. There’s a thin line between love and hate, sang Chrissie Hynde if The Pretenders.


In the end, we have to make our own call about what is the right amount of challenge for our bodies and what is simply too much. If you’re not having any fun at all or just can’t even do other things you need to due to fatigue, then maybe it is time to step back and take a rest day (or week). When you return, if you find yourself enjoying it, great. If not, maybe you need more time off, or to add more variety to your training. If you do find yourself really overdoing it in ways that cause you real harm, by all means figure out how not to do that!

What are your experiences with and thoughts about activity trackers?

Take It easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand and take it easy

The Eagles

Source: Photo by Sarah Kobos on Wirecutter/NYT

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5 thoughts on “Do Fitness Trackers Have a Dark Side? The Exercise Strikes Back

  1. I’ll admit stopping and jumping off my bike at 99.99 miles. I liked that look of potential…Mostly I get tired of any kind of tracker and stop using it. I used a heart rate monitor for a while because I found one on sale for about the same price as a basic bike computer. I dutifully found my resting and maximum heart rates, calculated the various target zones…and one day I realized I already could feel when I was in each of those zones. I didn’t need numbers to tell me what my body was already telling me. I never used it again. My employer gave me a simple pedometer to encourage me to walk 10,000 steps per day. I found that in the course of an average workday I walked well over 10,000 steps. No need to measure any more. I’d rather focus on scenery than numbers. But I guess my blog name tells you that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Admittedly, I was pretty obsessed with my FitBit the first, oh . . two generations around the block. And then I did something carazy. I didn’t get another one. Yeah, I went FitBit-less for over a year until my kids gifted me one for my birthday. I think the time away changed my mindset for the better. I no longer NEED to get my steps goal daily while still remaining active.

    Liked by 1 person

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