News & Insights 20 August 2020

Are Fitness trackers bad for your mental health?

The recent surge in health awareness has given rise to an era of wearable technology, headed by companies like FitBit, Apple and Jawbone. As wearable fitness trackers become increasingly popular, with a greater number of commercial options available, we ask the question – are they actually beneficial for your health?

Fitness trackers can enable patients to become more in tune with their general health, and can act as motivating devices for physical activity and exercise. Many fitness trackers use daily and weekly ‘goals’ in an attempt to encourage positive behaviour change, be that through steps, number of workouts or hours of sleep. However, these ‘goals’ are largely based on arbitrary and generalised values, with little consideration for the individual differences and vast fluctuation in needs that exist between wearers.

A recent study from the University of Copenhagen looked into the potentially negative effects of fitness trackers on an individual’s mental health. They concluded that activity data from wearable devices can result in increased levels of uncertainty, fear and anxiety, and similarly lead to obsessive and dependent behaviours.

The study found this to be particularly true for heart patients, as the majority of these devices are intended for individuals in good health, targeting sports and wellness as opposed to disease management. Many of the goals set by these devices are unrealistic for clinical populations and, as a result, patients are overcome by feelings of guilt and shame when they are unable to reach such targets. Similarly, outside of a clinical setting the ability to fully comprehend the numerical data provided by fitness trackers is limited, and many wearers incorrectly interpret their data, resulting in unnecessary concern. For example, they may link a faster heart rate on one day to an increased risk of heart attack, resulting in enhanced anxiety and worry as they fear their health is deteriorating.

That’s not to say that these negative effects cannot be extrapolated further to other users. Many ‘fit and healthy’ individuals cite a growing obsession with their step counts in particular, to the extent that it becomes dependent and compulsive. Accounts of people running up and down their stairs just before midnight to reach their daily goal raises concerns over the obsessive behaviours these technologies are encouraging. Whilst the increased level of physical activity may be seen as a positive for ones’ physical health, the strain that this dependence can place on your mental and emotional health is comparable to that of any other kind of addiction.

This latest research suggests that, despite clear potential for fitness trackers to enhance general engagement with individuals’ health profiles outside of a clinical setting, this potential is lost without the existence of collaborative care and support. Assistant professor Tariq Osman Andersen explained “patients need help interpreting data related to sleep, heart rate and exercise habits” for health apps to be effective. He proposes that creating “a digital platform in which clinicians and patients can jointly interpret data from” would overcome these associated negative feelings.

The value of such data comes from accurate analysis and interpretation, providing insight into your physical activity and how this translates into your day-to-day life. Fortunately, at KiActiv® we understand the importance of expressing your health data in an accessible format that enables you to get the most out of this information. Our digital platform displays your physical activity data within the context of your own condition, providing personalised and meaningful insight that commercial fitness trackers can’t. Your physical activity is multidimensional and it’s important to focus on movement you enjoy, not just a step count, to sustain an active lifestyle.

The KiActiv® Team