Fitness and health tracking devices are becoming increasingly popular and a huge variety of wearable tech and apps now exist. Indeed, many smartphones and smart watches now come primed and ready to track our activity, sleep and nutrition. Research has for a long time highlighted how monitoring behaviours can help to lead to positive changes in our lifestyles.
It can be an effective way to help increase physical activity, and to achieve weight loss. But monitoring physical activity and food intake may not be useful for everyone. Indeed, people with eating disorders often have unhealthy relationships with food and exercise. Obsessive behaviours such as calorie counting, rigid, driven exercise and unhealthy perfectionism are common among those with eating issues.
Fitness trackers and calorie counting
A small body of research has start to explore how fitness trackers and calorie counting apps might be link to disorder eating and exercise. Higher levels of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating have been identified among those who use tracking tools; compare to those who do not. And many patients with eating disorders report using calorie counting tools such as MyFitnessPal. And these tools have identify as having a negative impact on their eating disorder symptoms.
App creators say “they promote healthy lifestyles; also safeguards [are] in place to deter those wishing to pursue harmful habits.” MyFitnessPal, for example, includes resources on eating disorders on their website and has previously publish blog posts claiming the app can help people to recover from eating disorders. But out research seems to indicate otherwise. In a recent study, they explore the broader mental health; also well being of users of fitness and food intake monitoring tools. They also tried to understand why people use such devices.
In our sample of young people; 65% of them report currently using a fitness or food intake tracking device. Those using devices report higher levels of both disorder eating and compulsive exercise than non-users. Those who track their activity or food intake primarily to manage their weight or shape (as opposed to health or fitness related reasons) and who used the devices frequently show the highest levels of disorder eating and exercise.
Eating and exercise behaviours
Eating disorders are incredibly complex and are cause by many different interacting factors. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that tracking of eating and exercise behaviours could cause an eating disorder. But monitoring activity and food intake could inadvertently validate disorder eating and exercise attitudes and behaviours among vulnerable people. And the pressure from devices to be constantly active; also to meet revised, increasing step targets could exacerbate obsessive and self-critical tendencies.
It’s clear then that further research is need to clearly identify whether tracking devices may be helpful or harmful for certain individuals. Indeed, it may be pertinent for companies developing such technologies to work alongside eating disorder professionals to develop and provide appropriate signposting and support via their devices.
In the meantime, it’s important to think about how often we’re using tracking tools and our reasons for doing so. Indeed, it’s important to be able to enjoy a walk, run, swim or cycle without worrying about the pace, distance or calories burned. So next time you’re taking part in some exercise, instead of worrying about how many miles you’ve done, maybe just try to take the time to enjoy your activity and your surroundings as research shows being outdoors can, in and of itself, have a positive impact on your long-term health and well being.