Fitness trackers can help monitor health for some, but may exacerbate eating disorders in others

Fitness trackers can help monitor health for some, but may exacerbate eating disorders in others

Brooklyn boxing coach Nancy Chen says her Apple Watch helps hone her workouts.

But it wasn’t until her watch broke that she realized it ended up exacerbating some unhealthy behaviors.

“I definitely struggled with an eating disorder, like on and off throughout college,” Chen told ABC News. “I realized that after three months of not wearing it [the watch], which really helped confirm that I was over my eating disorder. “

Medical experts say Chen’s experience is not uncommon among users of these devices, and they point to some potential drawbacks that come with relying on the devices and data.

Dr. Rebecca Robbins, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News, “For some people, there are disadvantages, and we found that in those who really It’s more common among people who strive for perfection in many aspects of life.”

Many users may benefit from understanding their fitness levels, sleep quality, and other general health indicators.

In August 2021, Christopher Oakley, a professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville, said readings on his Apple Watch were able to convince skeptical doctors that he had heart disease, even though he His heart appeared to have calmed down and he returned home and was taken to the hospital, ABC affiliate WLOS reported.

Apple did not comment to ABC News when asked about its devices.

The company’s website says the Apple EKG app cannot detect heart attacks, blood clots, strokes or other heart conditions and users should consult emergency services or a medical professional if they feel unwell.

While some of the tech companies behind these devices say their goal is to help users get the best information about their workouts, they say they’re always working to create a better balance.

“Being able to understand what your body is doing and how healthy you are. I think it’s great,” Fitbit research director Shelton Yuen told ABC News.

Sarah Madaus of Brooklyn told ABC News that she first started using a Fitbit to track her exercise and health.

“For a while, it made me feel successful because I was like looking at my stats every week and being like, ‘Look you crushed it,'” she said.

She later asked her parents for an Apple Watch, which she now admits became her “suffocation.”

“It’s like, ‘Oh, you didn’t put a ring on today.'” I said, ‘You better hurry up.’ I’m sorry you guys can’t come to the party, you can’t go to dinner,'” Maddows said.

A 2017 study of college students published in the medical journal Eating Behavior found that using fitness trackers was associated with higher rates of eating disorder symptoms in some people, but did not necessarily lead to these behaviors.

Research shows anxiety about wearables isn’t limited to food.

In one case study, a woman diagnosed with atrial fibrillation developed health anxiety after recording nearly 1,000 EKG recordings via a smartwatch.

“When you’re constantly bombarded with information about your heart, your sleep, your weight, your fitness level, all these things…I think a lot of times the trouble comes from the fact that we invest a lot in understanding Dr. Tom Hildebrandt, associate professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine, told ABC News.

Some tech companies are taking a different approach to trackers.

The Oura Ring is worn on the user’s finger and has no screen to display exercise and health information. Users can view the data on their mobile phone or computer.

Shyamal Patel, Oura Ring’s director of science, told ABC News that his company’s devices and apps are designed with user control in mind.

“You want to calibrate your activity goals, or you can actually turn off calorie tracking,” he says.

Yuen also told ABC News that Fitbit devices also allow users to stop tracking certain metrics.

“We try to meet users where they are in order to help them build and achieve the goals they care about,” he said.

Hildebrandt said if someone feels overwhelmed by trackers and apps, they should stop using them for a week or two to see how they feel mentally and physically.

Chen and Madaus told ABC News they were able to get better workouts once they stopped using the Apple Watch.

“I think I was able to really focus on my workout and be very private,” Chen said.

“It’s really like you can focus more on the mental-to-muscular connection and the positive feelings you have,” Maddows said.

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