Why I Decided to Get Off the Tracker Train

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Activity trackers are all the rage these days, as you see people wearing them on their waistbands, shoes and wrists. Popularized by Fitbit and Jawbone, it seems there is now a fitness tracker for every personality and health need. These tiny devices track a plethora of information—how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories you’ve burned, how many flights of stairs you’ve walked, how much sleep you’ve gotten and more. Basically, conscious or unconscious, your tracker knows your body better than you.  

Of course, more information is always better so that you know exactly how active you’ve been at any given moment of the day. Who wouldn’t want to have these stats at their fingertips? Cue me raising my hand right now. Surprised? The fact is, I gave up my activity tracker after I decided it was doing me more harm than good.

Believe me, I understand that these devices can be a great source of motivation for someone who is trying to squeeze more activity into their days or knows a fun gadget is the way to get them moving. For others, though, it can become a source of stress and negativity. Consider the following scenarios:  
  1. You’re in a friendly step competition with co-workers at the office, or a few moms from school. You’ve been trying to get in more steps to keep you at the top of the leaderboard, but it never seems to be enough. There is always someone else doing more, which becomes frustrating. Soon, instead of challenging you, the constant disappointment makes you want to forget the whole competition.
  2. You suspect your friend who trains for triathlons likely gets 5,000 more steps a day than you. Comparing numbers with her only confirms your suspicion, and makes you realize it’s actually closer to a 7,000 step difference.
  3. According to your device, you’re burning 2,500 calories per day. Knowing how much you’re consuming, you start to expect a certain amount of weight loss to be reflected on the scale. When the scale doesn’t cooperate (which often happens), you’re ready to throw in the towel.
  4. You have a sedentary job, which means that exercise is the only way to reach your daily 10,000 step goal. You feel guilty taking rest days because that means you fall short of the goal.
I've built a career around my love of exercise, so adopting a fitness tracker was a natural progression. However, after using it for about 6 months, I found that my device began taking the enjoyment out of my routine. I started gravitating toward activities that would register a lot of steps, regardless of whether or not they were workouts I planned or even wanted to do. On the days where I failed to reach the prescribed 10,000 steps, I felt badly, even if it was a day where I wasn’t feeling well or my schedule was just hectic. As I started realizing these changes in my mood and routine, I decided to stop wearing my device.

I’ve always done better when I listen to my body, because it tells me when I’m doing too much or not enough activity. Choosing to take the device off and just focus on how I’m feeling allowed me to enjoy my workouts more and really be in tune with how much to push myself. I was happier because of it.

Soon after, my nine-year old daughter asked if she could wear my activity tracker to school. Turns out, comparing and competing for the most steps was the hot new conversation topic between friends at lunch and she wanted in on the action. I initially thought it could be a nice way to get kids excited about moving, but as she started talking about comparing calories burned, I quickly decided it wasn’t a good idea. Kids shouldn't face added pressure related to activity, but should be encouraged to exercise because it’s fun and keeps them feeling strong. 

If your tracker inspires you to move and get excited about exercise, that’s great! But if you feel yourself falling down the rabbit hole and focusing too much on the numbers, keep in mind that these devices are all based on estimates. Your device uses an estimate of your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) along with the activity it detects to come up with a calories burned estimate for the day. I emphasize the word estimate because BMR calculations are based on estimates of how many calories an average person of your age and size burns, meaning the actual number varies from person to person.

Furthermore, depending on the placement of your tracker and the type of exercise, the possibility exists that your device won’t pick up all of your activity. Rarely do two devices record the exact same number of steps and calories burned. This isn't to say that the data from an activity tracker is useless. In fact, it can be extremely helpful as long as you don’t get too tied to the numbers. It’s important to recognize that it is impossible for them to be 100 percent correct all the time.

Over time, I’ve gotten used to people asking why I don’t wear this device or that one. My response is simple: The numbers no longer motivate me, but that doesn’t mean they won’t motivate you. At the end of the day, do what works best to keep you on track with your health and fitness goals for the long run.

Do you wear an activity tracker? Why or why not?