Most of you probably scoffed at the title and thought the term obsessed was reserved for more destructive behavior. Tracking devices, like a Fitbit or a food scale? No way that could be a problem. But like everything in life, even good behaviors can have negative consequences when taken to the extreme.
Let’s take a really popular example: Wearable tracking devices that count steps, like the Fitbit or Apple watch. Hitting 10,000 steps per day as a basic recommendation has gained tons of traction and popularity among the fitness community. We tend to latch onto easy, straightforward recommendations with little hesitation. And let’s be honest, there’s not much harm in suggesting most people could be more physically active. But, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best recommendation either.
Here’s a common trend I’ll see with clients: Said client will want to hit a specific number of steps per day (we’ll use 10k for this example). Said client will check wearable device semi-frequently to see how many steps they’ve taken. The frequency will spike over time to the point where they’re obsessively checking the device. This frequent checking and desire to hit 10k steps will then lead to bizarre habits to hit said steps. It’s not uncommon to hear people are pacing the halls of their house or circling their kitchen just to get steps in. All for what, to hit 10,001 steps instead of 9,954?
If this sounds fake or dramatized, it’s not. Surely, not every person who puts on a wearable device falls into this category; but there are plenty who literally have to hide their Fitbit so that they don’t obsess over the steps they’re hitting.
And this is not limited to step counts; I see these behaviors with all different types of tracking devices.
- Fixating on body weight scale fluctuations.
- Obsessing over their heart rate monitor during cardio or an HRV app for recovery.
- Making sure to hit the specific weight on their food scale with absolute precision.
- Worrying over negligible changes over body fat test.
- Zeroing out macros on a food tracking app.
… and more.
So is it the devices, or is it us?
I’d say it’s a combination of both. There are some clients, given their personalities and their backgrounds, that have the proclivity towards becoming obsessed with tracking anything and everything. These clients are typically very analytical and enjoy tracking data. And while I fully support being diligent and organized, it can be taken to the extreme in a negative sense.
Likewise, the devices, apps and technology as a whole is quite literally designed to reinforce you using it more frequently and getting ‘hooked’ on the product. Those specific sounds you hear, or vibrations you feel or colors you see have been designed and tested to be the most addictive possible. Because why not? Developers want you to be on their app or using their technology as much as possible. That means they’ve effectively done their job.
But the problem isn’t with us enjoying tracking data or the devices themselves; it’s the application of what we do with that data.
Why should we use these devices?
Tracking step count or body weight or your food are all fantastic habits to build. But we have to realize that these are tools and not crutches to our neuroses. Let’s go back to the step count example. Say you find that around 10,000 steps you feel your best both mentally and physically. It means you were moderately active that day, likely got outside, didn’t sit around all day and sped up recovery from training. All great things! Use that data to keep your activity levels around 10k steps so that you can feel your best without obsessing over it. Hit 9k one day? All good. The same way that you might be a bit more active another day and hit 12k.
The idea of using a tracking device would be to see what you day needs to look like in order to hit that step count, track it for a period of time and then be able to live your life with that new step count. If you need to check in with it every once in a while to prompt you to dial back in those habits, you can easily do that. But obsessing over the minutia every.single.day. will drive you insane.
Now, we fully support precise tracking in certain situations.
You’re dieting for a physique competition? You bet your ass your diet better be on point and you’re tracking things like activity, cardio and sleep.
You’re getting ready for an endurance event? Paying close attention to your HR and HRV will help training and recovery.
You’re making weight for a weight class? Being obsessed with the scale for that week is normal.
But the pervasive theme of obsession without any benefit, as in being obsessed with hitting 10,000 steps instead of focusing on the positive behaviors you’re creating and using the device as a tool, is what we want to avoid.
As always, our goal with our content is provide the depth and context to highly nuanced topics. This article barely scratched the surface of obsessions with tracking devices and behavioral addictions as a whole, but I wanted to provide you all with a few more resources I’ve found to be useful.
The book Irresistible by Adam Alter dives deep into the science of behavioral addictions. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport was another book I found to be really insightful into distraction and tech addictions. And lastly, we recorded a podcast on behavioral addictions to cover the practical implications of how to combat these ever pervasive themes we find ourselves running into on all spectrums from fitness to tech to leisure time.