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Fitness Trackers May Increase Anxiety, Study Suggests

Man wearing fitbit

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Key Takeaways

  • Wearable fitness devices have many advantages like increasing motivation and awareness of various health factors, but they can also have drawbacks.
  • A key concern is the anxiety people might experience if they become overly competitive about hitting specific numbers or goals.
  • Experts suggest creating awareness around how you use fitness wearables, much as you should for all devices.

Using fitness wearables to track healthy behaviors like activity and sleep can increase awareness around self-care and wellness, but new research published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research suggests their usage may simultaneously increase feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. 

These findings could influence people's relationships with their fitness trackers as they relate to chronic illness and self-care and help monitor the degree to which trackers dictate personal behavior.

Tracker Analysis

The study looked at 27 people with heart disease aged 55-74, to determine how data on activity could influence their attitudes and habits. Participants wore a FitBit Altra HR wearable activity tracker for between three to 12 months and tracked step count, sleep, and heart rate data.

The reactions at the end of each participant's study period ranged widely. Some appreciated the knowledge they gained about their own bodies, and found that awareness more useful than the data itself, while a few others expressed doubts about the accuracy and trustworthiness of the data. Two participants stopped wearing the trackers after only a few days due to "lack of interest."

Several of the participants talked about how the device nudged them to stay physically active, and again, that feature drew mixed reviews. Some loved the reminder and felt inspired to try different habits like using the steps instead of the elevator, while others felt it was more nagging than nudging.

Mindful Device Use

If you're feeling anxious or irritated when using a fitness device, that doesn't necessarily mean you should give up on it entirely.

Instead, see it as an opportunity to understand what's making you frustrated, and how you can shift to using it in a different way, suggests Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a tech business consultant based author of The Distraction Addiction who was not directly involved in this study. "It's not the technology that's the problem, it's how we're using it," he says. "If you're using the tech in a way that makes you feel anxious, distracted, or negative, then take a moment to think about what would be helpful for you, what would make you feel supported and uplifted. Then make the tech into a tool for that."

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

If you're using the tech in a way that makes you feel anxious, distracted, or negative, then take a moment to think about what would be helpful for you, what would make you feel supported and uplifted. Then make the tech into a tool for that.

— Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

For example, instead of setting distance or activity goals that you feel anxious about reaching, simply track your activity daily and see if you can do a little more today than you did yesterday. Incremental progress can be more sustainable and gives you a sensation of a "win" that will create momentum instead of discouragement.

Retooling Competition

If what's making you feel like abandoning the tracker is growing ambivalence or disinterest, there are also ways to tweak that usage for better outcomes as well.

For example, a 2019 study on workplace fitness device usage tracked about 600 Deloitte employees from 40 U.S. states and separated them into four groups. One focused only on personal goals and self-tracking, while a second group was built around a social structure, with a designated “sponsor” providing encouragement. The third was more collaborative, with three-person teams working together to achieve more points. The fourth group featured three-person teams competing against each other.

After six months, it was that competitive team that really made a difference for its participants, by a considerable amount. Not only did that group increase activity by 920 steps per person more than the control group, but three months later, the other groups had gone back to pre-study activity levels, but the competition group continued to have nearly 600 daily steps more than the control group.

Mitesh Patel, MD

Simply having the wearable isn't enough, you have to change your behavior in a way that maximizes success. Most of all, you need to see the wearable as one part of a larger health strategy, and that's a strategy that can be fun instead of a chore

— Mitesh Patel, MD

Several other factors also made that group successful, researchers concluded, such as selecting their own goal, achieving different levels based on progression, and choosing their own goals instead of being assigned one.

“This shows that efforts to increase physical activity are more likely to succeed if they combine the use of a wearable with an effective behavior change strategy,” said the study’s lead author, Mitesh Patel, MD, director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit. "But simply having the wearable isn't enough, you have to change your behavior in a way that maximizes success. Most of all, you need to see the wearable as one part of a larger health strategy, and that's a strategy that can be fun instead of a chore."

What This Means for You

Fitness wearables can be highly beneficial for anyone looking to keep track of how much they move along with various other healthy habits. It's easy to get overwhelmed by anxiety, or a nagging feeling that you have to consistently reach certain numbers, but don't let that stop you from reaching your goals.

You have to remember that improving overall fitness is a journey, and numbers on a wrist-band will never be a holistic representation of personal progress.

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  1. Andersen TO, Langstrup H, Lomborg S. Experiences with wearable activity data during self-care by chronic heart patients: Qualitative studyJ Med Internet Res. 2020;22(7):e15873. doi:10.2196/15873

  2. Patel MS, Small DS, Harrison JD, et al. Effectiveness of behaviorally designed gamification interventions with social incentives for increasing physical activity among overweight and obese adults across the United States: The STEP UP randomized clinical trial [published online ahead of print, 2019 Sep 9]JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(12):1-9. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.3505