Tuesday morning, 9 a.m. I stand up, snatch my phone, and mosey across the office to ask a coworker a question. 11 a.m., I tuck my phone into my pocket and walk over to top off my coffee. 8:15 p.m., I meander around the kitchen, phone in hand, pulling beans and a box of rice out of the cabinet.
Hello. My name is Allison, and I’m trying to break up with my fitness tracker.
Now, I know me. I’ve written about eating disorder recovery before, so I know my relationship with numbers. The more I rely on sensation—not benchmarks—the better I do. Which is why I’ve refused to shell out the money for the multitudes of step-tracking, calorie-counting, metabolism-recording devices currently flooding the market.
But I need my iPhone to do my job, and my iPhone’s Health app can’t be deleted, and that app tracks my steps.
Down the rabbit hole we go.
I’m hardly alone, though. Everywhere you look, you see Fitbits, Apple Watches, Microsoft Bands, and other devices that periodically harass you about your activity and kinda look like those slap bracelets from the ‘90s. Oral Roberts University is even grading its incoming freshmen on how much activity they track via Fitbit.
On the surface, it sounds harmless. Movement has been linked to reduced stress, increased endorphins, and better sleep patterns. Shouldn’t a handy device that reminds you to get up and go be a welcome innovation?
Well, no, not always.
If you, like me, struggle to distance yourself from that pesky pedometer in your pocket, these four facts might help you make the break for good.
1. Relying on numbers disconnects your mind from your body
Newsflash: Bodies are different. Every body has its own strengths, needs, and limitations, and those differences deserve to be honored. And those limitations can change—hell, mine aren’t the same from day to day. Today, lacing up my running shoes helped me release some stress. Last Tuesday, I had a headache, I felt worn out, and my body told me to curl up in bed and watch House of Cards until I fell asleep.
Exercise and rest are two sides of the same coin—and we need them both.
Trust me, your Fitbit isn’t gonna know the difference between a run day and a bed day.
Your body knows what it needs, but only if you listen to it. And the more artificial rules we impose, the harder it gets to hear your body’s needs over the push notifications. Studies suggest that intuitive exercise (without external regulations) can help us react to pain and prevent injuries, increase enjoyment, and even combat eating disorders.
The research hears me out. A recent Canadian study suggests that there’s nothing magical about that 10,000-steps benchmark. Moderate-intensity exercise improves aerobic fitness and systolic blood pressure—and depending on intensity, body type, genetics, and more, you might start reaping the benefits at any given number of steps.
Too often, listening to our bodies is replaced by a set of metrics to hit. We’re taught to eat X calories in meals spaced X hours apart, or log X number of steps daily. And these guidelines have value, when they’re applicable. But they aren’t always, or even often, which puts what we’re told and what we feel in direct opposition.
2. Tracking numbers plays into perfectionism
Hey. You’re not good enough.
Hey. Get up off your ass and go for a run.
Hey. You lazy, worthless piece of trash, you failed again. Way to go.
No, you haven’t accidentally wandered onto the set of The Biggest Loser. If you’ve got a complicated relationship with exercise, that’s the voice of your fitness tracker—and the voice in your head constantly harassing you to use it.
Now, I’m not here to tell you not to set goals. Set all the goals you want. But I am here to tell you that hearing a ping every time you don’t reach an arbitrary benchmark is an invitation for a Pavlovian meltdown.
The links between perfectionism and disordered eating have been well researched. And if there’s a more perfect storm between the two conditions than a rigid, automated reminder to meet daily activity levels, I haven’t found it. (Except, of course, calorie counters. And some fitness trackers have those in them too.)
Physical activity is not a win-lose scenario. You are not morally better or worse because of how many steps you took today. But fitness trackers make it way too easy to conflate total failure and fleeting success with the number on the screen.
3. Fitness tracking is ableist as all hell
Remember when I said earlier that everyone’s body is different? Well, then maybe we should stop setting arbitrary standards that are impossible for everyone to meet. Just a suggestion.
Some people’s bodies aren’t capable of logging vast numbers of steps because of disability, whether visible or invisible, physical or neurological. Some people rely on gentler movement with lower impact, like swimming, water aerobics, or yin yoga. Some people use mobility devices.
Which is in part why Oral Roberts’ Fitbit-based grading scale is so fucked up. As if students with disabilities don’t go to college. As if people with chronic pain or mobility limitations are less than. As if an elite athlete and a person with severe asthma should be logging the same number of steps.
Come on. Our bodies are ours, and their needs matter. Let’s get this one-size-fits-none, ableist bullshit out of our understanding of health. Because we’re not the same—and holding us all to the same standards makes zero sense.
4. Wellness tracking can go too far
Setting unhealthy activity goals is dangerously easy, even without fitness trackers. And it can have serious consequences—compulsive exercise can cause stress fractures, lowered heart rate, joint pain, and in some (but not all) cases, rapid weight loss.
Fitness trackers, when used improperly, do more than glamourize compulsive exercise. They make it part of your daily routine.
A rigid, high-intensity exercise program may seem less concerning when it’s “meeting my step count for the day” or “working toward my activity goal.” And the more that inflexible rhetoric slips into our discourse, the more it becomes normalized.
It becomes normal the way chatting about your juice cleanse at the water cooler has become normalized.
The way bragging about your jeans size has become normal.
The way so many body-negative sound bytes have become part of our cultural conversation that we don’t even realize they’re a problem. And that makes contradicting them powerfully difficult—even in cases where doing so is literally a matter of life and death.
Listen, I get it. Fitness trackers are compelling. They turn the Gordian knot of factors that is health into a single, convenient number. Simplicity is alluring.
It’s also a lie.
Health is complicated. Sometimes it may need activity. Other times it may need rest. It may need laughter. It may need sleep. It may need you to stop lying to your dentist and floss more often.
“Are you healthy?” needs a five-page essay response, not a yes-or-no answer.
A fact I’ll continue to remind myself of, the next time I reach for my phone before I walk to the coffeemaker.
(Do you agree? Let Oral Roberts University know—sign the petition here!)