Fitness trackers can help monitor health for some people, but can exacerbate disordered eating for others

Written by on February 8, 2024

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(NEW YORK) — Brooklyn-based boxing instructor Nancy Chen said her Apple Watch was able to hone in on the effectiveness of her workouts.

But it wasn’t until her watch broke that she said she realized it ended up exacerbating some unhealthy behaviors.

“I really struggled with disordered eating, pretty much like off and on throughout college,” Chen told ABC News. “I realized that after like three months of not wearing [the watch], it really helped confirm that I was like moving past my eating disorder.”

Chen’s experience is not uncommon among the users of those devices, according to medical experts who point to some of the potential downsides posed by relying on the devices and data.

“There is a drawback for some, and we see this is more common in individuals that really seek perfection in a lot of aspects of our lives,” Dr. Rebecca Robbins assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News.

Many users may experience benefits from knowing their fitness levels, sleep quality, and other general health metrics.

In August 2021, Christopher Oakley, a professor at University of North Carolina at Asheville, said readings from his Apple Watch were able to convince skeptical doctors that he was having a heart attack even though it appeared his heart had calmed down between the time he left his home and got to the hospital, according to ABC affiliate WLOS.

Apple did not provide a comment to ABC News when asked about its devices.

The company’s website said the Apple ECG app can not detect cannot detect a heart attack, blood clots, strokes or other heart conditions and users should consult emergency services or a medical professional if they are not feeling well.

While some of the tech companies behind the devices said their goal is to help their users have the best information about their workout they said they have been working to create a better balance.

“Being able to have visibility into what your body is doing and how your health is going. I think that’s only good,” Shelton Yuen, the director of research at Fitbit, told ABC News.

Sarah Madaus of Brooklyn told ABC News she first started tracking her workouts and health with a Fitbit.

“For a while, it made me feel successful because I was like looking at my weekly stats and it was like, ‘Look that you crushed it,'” she said.

She later asked her parents for an Apple Watch which she now admits became a “chokehold” for her.

“It’d be like, ‘Oh, you didn’t close your rings today.’ And I’m like, ‘You better hustle. Sorry, guys can’t come to the party, can’t go to dinner,'” Madaus said.

A 2017 study of college students published in the medical journal “Eating Behaviors” found that using a fitness tracker is linked with a higher rate of eating disorder symptoms in some, but didn’t necessarily cause the behaviors.

Anxiety around wearables isn’t limited to food, according to studies.

In one case study, one woman who was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation developed health anxiety after she ran nearly 1,000 ECG recordings through her smartwatch.

“When you’re bombarded with all of this constant information about your heart, your sleep, your weight, your fitness level, all of this stuff… I think a lot of times of trouble comes from we’re putting a lot of that understanding or expectation for understanding on the individual,” Dr. Tom Hildebrant, an associate professor of psychiatry Ichan School of Medicine, told ABC News.

Some tech companies are taking different approaches to the trackers.

The Oura Ring sits on a user’s finger and doesn’t have a screen that displays their workout and health information. Users can check the data on their phone or computer.

Shyamal Patel, the head of science for Oura Ring, told ABC News that his company’s devices and apps are made with user control in mind.

“You want to calibrate your activity goals or you can actually turn off calorie tracking,” he said.

Yuen also told ABC News that Fitbit devices also allow users to stop tracking certain metrics.

“We try to meet our users where they are so that we can help them establish and meet the goals that they care about,” he said.

Hildebrant said that if anyone is feeling too overwhelmed by the trackers and apps they should stop using them for one or two weeks and see how they feel mentally and physically.

Chen and Madaus told ABC News that they were able to have better workouts once they stopped using their Apple Watches.

“I think I was able to really focus on the workout and be very private,” Chen said,

“It’s really like you can focus so much more on the mind-muscle connection to and like how you’re actively feeling,” Madaus said.

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