Apps and devices that track your workouts, steps, calorie intake, and even your sleep can help you work toward your health goals. According to L.A. personal trainer Whitney English, "Fitness trackers are great for insight, accountability, and motivation." Sean Dube, a personal trainer based in NYC echoes that fitness trackers are great at reminding you to do something physical each day. "They provide you with quantitative data you can use to make sure that you are making progress or maintaining a level of physical fitness you're satisfied with." Teaming up with friends and engaging in healthy competition can also keep you going. He adds, "These devices work best when they make you feel good about your fitness and make you more mindful of your health and wellness in your day-to-day life."
Trackers have their benefits, without a doubt. Barbara Chin, a certified personal trainer and registered dietitian in NYC adds that finding the right tracker to suit your needs can help you get the most out of it. "Some trackers have a built-in function to remind you to get up and walk if you have been sitting for too long," she says, "Trackers with a heart-rate monitor may also be helpful for maintaining a consistent intensity during certain workouts like running or indoor cycling, especially when doing activities where it is easy to slack off."
While these tools can make a big difference, experts agree there are some caveats. Here are some ways to tell it's time to take it down a notch and tips on how to deal.
You're Addicted to Data
Is your day ~ruined~ because your tracker or app isn't working? Try not to drive yourself to distraction. "If you find yourself compulsively checking it, are worried about checking it, or using it to calculate punishment for indulging on pizza and beer, you need to reevaluate your priorities," says Dube.
You're Too Competitive
While friendly competition among friends may help foster a sense of community and accountability, it's possible to take it too far. If this sounds like you, practice adopting a "you do you" stance, recommends Chin. "The numbers themselves may mean something different person to person or device to device. Use your tracker as a guide to compare your own activity day to day and not against someone else's numbers." If it helps, tell your pals you're taking a breather so they know not to send you those "step it up!" texts.
You Get Too Emotional
Distraught because you didn't meet your steps goal for the day or feeling legitimately bummed about a lower-than-anticipated calorie burn? Dube encourages looking at fitness trackers as you would any other tool. "You don't have an emotional reaction when you go to your toolbox to use a screwdriver," he says, so keep that in mind when checking your device's data.
"If you're turning down dinners with friends because you are worried about fitting in calories, or you're skipping activities you love because they won't count for enough steps or burn enough calories," says English, "then you may need to rethink your approach. Nutrition and fitness should be enjoyable, and your fitness tracker should support that. Be wary if it is forcing you to become too restrictive."
So what to do?
Chin reminds clients that trackers differ in sensitivity and accuracy, especially when it comes to steps, sleep, and calorie burn. "This is especially true of the trackers you wear on your wrist," she says, "because those may pick up hand/arm movements that aren't steps such as when you're brushing your teeth or cooking or knitting, and therefore overestimate your steps"—and your energy expenditure. How come? The device can't account for other factors that influence your metabolism, Chin adds, such as circadian rhythm, hormone fluctuations, sleep, and stress level. Many also can't differentiate between intensities (for example, running and walking) and can overestimate or underestimate how many calories you burn.
Take a Step Back
Experts agree that taking a break is important. Dube suggests reframing how you look at your tracker. "Take a break from it or change the way that you think about your device. Your fitness tracker is a tool to help you achieve your goal, and it is not the goal itself." It doesn't have to be a permanent breakup, but getting some distance can give you perspective.