Biotrackers: good for fitness, bad for mental health?

Do you wear an Apple Watch, FitBit, Oura Ring or other smart wearables? If so, you are not alone. Many of us have been lured into the magical world of biotrackers and wearables by the promise that personal data will give us the ability to change our behavior and improve our health and well-being. But do they work? Are they really good for us?

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Using data to change behavior

Biotrackers reflect our increasingly data-driven world combined with the age-old passion for self-improvement – ​​now through self-knowledge gained from personal data.

The sophisticated biotrackers of 2022 have a long and illustrious history of old-fashioned manual tracking based on stopwatches, thermometers, pen and paper to track our health, exercise and diet logs. We now have automatic device-enabled data collection, measuring ourselves and sometimes even others.

In 2013, Pew Research reported that 69% of American adults track at least one health indicator: weight, diet, exercise, or physical symptoms (Fox & Duggan, 2013). Now, nearly a decade later, one in four American adults has data tracking capability, whether they use it or not, by wearing a smartwatch such as the Apple Watch or Fitbit ( Vogels, 2020).

That’s not counting data collection on apps like WW, MyFitnessPro, Inner Balance or exercise machines like the Peloton or the growing popularity of the Oura Ring and Lumen metabolism monitor. The devices are now also linked; the watch or treadmill connects to an app and the apps share data with each other.

The data itself is not useful

But let’s be honest. The data itself is not useful. We need to analyze data to turn it into meaningful and useful information that hopefully gives us insights that enable or motivate change. And increasingly, our devices don’t just collect; they have built-in algorithms that generate brand new metrics for our entertainment and inspiration. For example, the Oura Ring tracks ‘preparation’, the Lumen ‘metabolism’.

The benefits of biotrackers

Evidence suggests that for many, biotrackers work well. They motivate by increasing accountability and engagement. They can provide a sense of accomplishment by documenting our efforts in real time and over time and rewarding us with prizes and digital badges. Biotrackers are structured to facilitate the setting of implicit and explicit goals that help users identify and visualize desired results, a technique often incorporated into wellness strategies. Increasingly, tracking devices reflect our online social world by including the ability to tag friends, send messages, link, share and compete with others, making the attractive use. They can also function as an “early warning system” by providing vital health information. In one study, an algorithm taking heart rate and activity data from smartwatches anticipated the outbreak of COVID-19 (Alavi et al., 2022).

The Potential Downsides of Trackers

Even though wearable technology research reports few negative consequences, people vary in their response to quantifying the data. Defining your “ideal weight” can be motivating or demoralizing, depending on your level of aspiration versus your realism. Ironically, trackers take on a bit of self-awareness to reap the benefits. A reasonable goal requires a level of honesty to separate an achievable goal from self-sabotage. When you get it right, it creates self-rewarding goal achievement and the upward spiral of positive emotions that encourage resilience and positive self-esteem and provide fuel for future endeavours. This is not the case if you prepare to continually miss the mark.

There are several legitimate concerns. For example, certain personality types, such as those who are low-conscientious or open to experience, may find tracking stressful rather than motivating. Trackers can also make it harder to listen to your body. For some, the ability to see the stats increased activity but decreased enjoyment by focusing attention on the data rather than noticing, let alone smelling, the roses (Ryan et al., 2019). Data tracking raises concerns among some medical professionals that preoccupation with data could encourage exercise addiction or trigger unhealthy targets and social comparison among those who tend to engage in obsessive behaviors or compulsive.

Biotrackers only work if you choose one to use

But past the honeymoon stage, biotrackers only work if you use them. Sure, they’ll follow, but they’re not doing the work for you. Ironically, these tools meant to provide self-knowledge require self-awareness so you can invest in the one you will actually use. Are you social? Do you like proof of progress? Do you like to track the achievement of goals? You need to figure out what types of comments motivate you. “Motivational designs” vary: some focus on gamifying data with badges and barriers, some excel at real-time data communication, some incorporate a social component, and some have a bit of all three (e.g., Hamari et al., 2018).

With a tracker, you are researcher and subject

Using any biotracker is essentially a research project with you as the subject. As with any research, you need to determine how you will use the data before you start collecting it. Otherwise, it’s just an expensive trinket with useless data that will eventually gather dust on your dresser. While there is nothing wrong with trying out a device, if your budget allows it, the question to ask yourself is whether the device serves any useful purpose or helps you make better choices, no matter what you measure.

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