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Columnist, Food

A calorie-counting monitor almost ruined spin class for me. Before the devices were installed on the bikes’ handlebars, I would lose myself completely during a session, grooving to the beat of the music and the sweaty, heart-thumping, endorphin-induced entrancement of the experience. After class, I would feel powerful, happy and accomplished. But the numbers on the monitor changed the game. Glancing at them throughout the class killed my euphoria and made me feel like a loser who couldn’t keep up. Instead of the post-class afterglow, I found myself defeated, plagued by self-criticism. I would think, “Why did I only burn 375 calories when the riders on both sides of me burned nearly twice that? I’m so lame.” Luckily, I realized the danger being posed to my workout and my self-worth before it got too far. Now I cover my bike monitor with a towel.

My experience illustrates a truth about food and fitness apps and trackers: As researchers and clinicians are discovering, the devices can have very mixed results.

On the plus side, studies show they can be effective at increasing activity and improving dietary and sleep habits, as well as instilling feelings of empowerment and motivation. I have several friends who adore their trackers and swear they keep them (literally) moving in a positive direction, even if that movement involves pacing their living room in the evening to get their daily steps in. And unlike me, most of the other riders in my spin class seem to like the monitors.

But a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that, at least in the short term, while tracking an activity such as walking or reading increases the amount accomplished, it can significantly reduce enjoyment of the activity, making it feel more like work than pleasure. This could reduce motivation over the long term. Researchers have also found a more imminent danger: Fitness and calorie trackers can worsen symptoms of eating disorders. “I see so many people whose eating disorder was either triggered or exacerbated by food and fitness trackers,” says Jennifer Rollin, therapist and founder of the Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Md. “These trackers encourage a fixation of numbers which can be dangerous or even deadly for people.”

If you have no history of eating disorders and are trying to get to a healthy weight, keeping tabs on your intake and movement might be helpful; a 2018 study showed that monitoring did not increase disordered eating in adults seeking treatment for obesity. A recent study in BMC Psychology which examined the emotional impact of wearable activity trackers found that the devices offer, by and large, a positive experience with little risk for most people. However, the researchers conclude that those with certain personality traits are more vulnerable to negative consequences from them, and all users may experience anxiety or frustration when they are prevented from wearing their devices. The bottom line, it seems, is that whether there are more upsides or downsides in using these monitoring systems is very individual.

So how do you know whether you should keep or ditch your food or fitness tracker? Rollin points out three signs that yours could be doing more harm than good.

1) You are ignoring your body cues: You feel fatigued, but you continue to exercise because your tracker says you have more steps. Or you are very hungry but forgo food because your device says you can’t eat any more calories that day.

2) Your mood depends on your numbers: You feel sad or shameful for not meeting your activity or calorie goals, or your sense of self-worth is tied to those numbers.

3) You are mentally preoccupied with your device: You spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about meeting the numerical goals on your tracker.

She points out that regardless of whether those particular signs apply to you, trackers compel us to focus on numbers rather than the intrinsic pleasures of being active and eating well. “Someone might say, I’m not wearing my tracker today so it isn’t worth it to take a walk. . . . There are better ways to achieve the same outcome and really improve your relationship with food and fitness.” She suggests shifting the emphasis from numerical goals to finding activities you truly enjoy, eating mindfully and practicing self-compassion.

I agree wholeheartedly. Sure, for most people, doing laps around your living room to reach your step goal beats being glued to the sofa, but doesn’t it sound infinitely more joyful and sustainable to forget about the numbers, crank up the music and dance around the living room instead?