Is Tracking Your Activity Bad For Your Mental Health?
Written by Fiona Thomas
Fiona Thomas is a freelance writer with work published on Metro, Healthline, Heads Together, Mind and Happiful magazine. Her book Depression in a Digital Age: The Highs and Lows of Perfectionism is an extension of her work around mental health, and a celebration of all that's possible through the power of social media.
If you’re trying to get fit then the chances are you’ve invested in an activity tracker. It could be a FitBit on your wrist to count daily steps, or an Apple Watch which logs how often you stand up, or maybe you downloaded the Nike+Run Club app to train for a marathon and finally get your first ten-minute mile.
However you choose to track your activity, you’re doing it because you think it helps. The adverts for these products suggest that somehow, logging the time you spend at the gym will spur you on to be better, do more, and work harder. You set goals and you record your efforts. Numbers mean progress. But do tracking apps really work? The jury is still out.
One study showed that after one year of using a clip-on activity tracker, there was no effect on the subjects’ overall health and fitness. The online support network that some apps promote has been proven to motivate people in some cases, but often a ‘leaderboard’ format (which some apps favour) can have the opposite effect.
I recently overheard a young woman say that she arrived at the gym and realised she had forgotten to wear her Apple Watch altogether. What did she do? She cancelled the workout and went home, because in her words, there was 'no point' if she couldn't see how many calories she had burned. Worryingly, one head teacher recently said that fitness trackers can lead to “unforeseen risks of obsessive behaviour and overwork” in children.
Basically, some users are pushing themselves reach arbitrary goals in order to get positive reinforcement from an app. And when they don’t get that positive reinforcement, they feel like they’ve failed. Then sometimes the choose not to move at all.
So is tracking your activity bad for your mental health? I know from personal experience that documenting my workouts can encourage change in the beginning. It holds me accountable. But in the long run, it can make me feel worse when I inevitably miss the odd session due to a night out, working late or just sheer exhaustion.
I asked counsellor and psychologist Philip Karahassan about the potential repercussions of fitness tracking, who says apps have become an accepted part of our society and culture.
“I think that their usage, in both a positive and negative way, has been normalised as a must-do for one's physical health, when really they are keeping us locked in a state of anxiety” says Karahassan. Many of us are so preoccupied with data input that many of our well-laid plans never come to fruition.
The problem is, fitness apps offer an emotional response — that sense of achievement when you see the number of calories burned or steps taken — but often this can take precedent over the physical experience. We overlook the physiological buzz that comes from exercise, and in favour of what? A digital pat on the back when we see it written on our phones.
Not relegated to those just starting their health journey, this obsession can manifest itself in the minds of people who are seasoned fitness fanatics. I spoke to Rachael Watson who is a Crossfit enthusiast, nutritionist, and owner of the online community called Ditch The Diet Academy to find out more.
She warns that tracking can be particularly harmful for those with a history of obsessive behaviour, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
“It got to the point where the number of steps I achieved on my FitBit would, in my head, determine how much food I was allowed to eat or how much food my coach was telling me to eat.”
Rachael now tries to encourage her own clients to be wary of tracking tools, and use them only as a jumping off point.
“Yes, tracking is good for a little while. But it should never be something that is a long term thing because if you become obsessed then you get scared at the thought of not tracking. That is the point where I think it became all consuming for me.”
This isn’t to say that activity tracking is all bad, of course. Rachael openly admits that she still uses her FitBit on a daily basis. She works from home in a desk-based job, so having a reminder to get up and move around regularly is beneficial to her. However, she now uses this mostly as a way to maintain good mental health — not with the aim of losing weight.
The good news is that tracking what you do on a daily basis can be beneficial to your mindset, but that depends on the data you track and how you use it. For instance, what if we recorded how we feel instead of how many steps we’ve racked up that day?
Jana Dowling spent five weeks under 24-hour watch as a high-risk suicide patient and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As part of her recovery she began diligently tracking her mood on a daily basis. The aim was not to count and expend calories, but instead to link behaviours to how they affected her mood.
“I used the data I collected to make my decisions because I couldn’t always trust my mind to recover as quickly as possible. I didn’t realise it then, but I built a tracking system that measured my mental fitness.”
This became the basis of the MyArkeo app, which allows the user to track mood, sleep, work hours, exercise, food, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine intake, along with up to five low mental fitness symptoms. This data creates your ‘My Arkeo score’ which is essentially a daily generated score for your mental fitness. This allows you to see how different lifestyle factors impact your mental fitness and encourages you to start making steps to improve this.
Although still in its early days, feedback has been positive. It’s certainly made me question how much time I’ve spent neurotically tracking my workouts in the past. I have depression and anxiety and have been using the app myself for the last few weeks, and I think it’s a positive step for those of us who need to quantify our complicated mood changes. It’s certainly the best alternative to the anxiety that comes with trying to hit 10k steps everyday to make an appearance on an imaginary leaderboard. No thanks.