If you want to develop “obsessive tendencies”, there is an app for that. There are several, in fact. You may have downloaded a bunch of them on 1 January in a rush of resolution-making.
Fitness apps such as Strava, MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper can be useful tools for motivating you to start and stick to a workout regime. But, according to a study at the National University of Ireland, Galway, these apps can also encourage obsessive attitudes towards exercise. The study, which observed 272 cyclists who use Strava, found that people who predominately use the tool to show off – posting their workouts to receive praise, for example – are more likely to develop an unhealthy compulsion and high stress levels.
I mean this politely, but duh! It seems obvious that being able to track and share the tiniest details of your workout may not always be a positive thing. I had an eating disorder as a teenager and, for a very unhappy time, data dominated my life. I weighed myself several times a day. I calculated everything from how many calories were in one bite of an apple to how many extra calories I would burn by exercising in cold weather. I used analogue, in-brain calculating technology to track all this. Had I had access to the plethora of health apps that are available now, it would have taken me much longer to recover – not only because these kinds of tools enable obsessive behaviour, but because they normalise and even glamorise it.
The concurrent rise of “wellness” and self-tracking technology has ushered in a sort of socially sanctioned “technorexia”. We live in an age where you can never be too rich or too fit. Calorie-counting, which was once considered Bridget Jones-style silly at best and neurotic at worst (largely because it was coded female), is now celebrated as a data-driven route to self-improvement (largely because Silicon Valley has coded it male). It is harder to spot the symptoms associated with eating disorders when everyone seems to be fixated on their fitness stats. Also, because eating and exercise disorders are still associated with women, it is particularly easy for problematic behaviour among men to fly under the radar.
As the authors of the Strava study note, “the adverse connection between these technologies and wellbeing has received little attention”. Only a handful of studies hint at the dark side of these devices. A 2016 study of female Fitbit users by CNN, for example, found that 59% felt as if their routines were controlled by their device, while 30% said their Fitbit made them feel guilty. A 2015 study at Duke University in North Carolina found that tracking can reduce pleasure in the activity being quantified and make people do less of that activity when they are not measuring it. “Enjoyable activities can become almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun,” noted one professor behind the study. Going for a long bike ride can cease to be a pleasure in itself but an achievement to boast about online.
I am not saying that fitness apps are a bad thing. I am sure most people use them positively. That includes me; now that I am fully recovered, I find that trying to do 10,000 steps a day is a fun nudge to get me off the couch. However, as health-tracking technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous – even kids use fitness apps – it is important to be aware that quantifying every aspect of our lives is not necessarily healthy.
•Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist