In my experience with eating disorders and a harmful relationship to exercise, I know first hand how fitness apps lead to an unhealthy obsession. I recently came to realise just how unhealthy my use of the app Runkeeper has been. This is the fitness app trap.
I have 626 activities tracked in my Runkeeper. Six hundred and twenty six.
My logged activities aren’t just all those times I’ve set out with the intention of exercising. A lot of them are my everyday walks in town. Yes, I would track those too, desperate to know how many calories I was burning. So that at the end of the day I could judge whether it had been a “good day”, or a “bad day”. A good day would mean I’d starved myself and burned more calories than I’d consumed.
For those not familiar with Runkeeper: it’s an app that allows the user to track kilometres or miles, speed, pace, and calories burned from exercise such as walks, runs, and cycling.
In my countless hours of activity tracking, it never once occurred to me that this isn’t healthy or “normal” behaviour. That not everyone else does this. It wasn’t until I mentioned my Runkeeper habit to my therapist that it really dawned on me how crazy it is. And, of course, now that I had outed this behaviour to my therapist, she explained to me that I needed to stop. Stop using Runkeeper. Stop tracking all my activities. Stop writing things down. Stop running a tally of my exercise with the intention of bashing myself for not doing enough.
That same day it became even more clear to me how obsessed I was when I left my therapist’s office to walk home and found myself – out of sheer habit – pulling out my phone and opening Runkeeper. With my thumb hovering over the “Start” button, I realised what I was doing. It took me a couple of minutes of talking myself out of it before I finally locked the screen and put my phone back in my pocket. I literally took a deep breath and told myself: “just start walking”.
Here’s the thing about fitness trackers: they’re a terrible trap for anyone struggling with any kind of eating disorder. You see, for so many of us, it’s all about numbers – on the scale, on food packaging labels, on the treadmill, and in fitness trackers. As much as I have hated math my entire life, these kind of numbers are always on my mind.
I’d argue that these fitness trackers are a trap even for people who are perfectly healthy, and not suffering an eating disorder. Because it creates an awareness that so easily can lead to obsession. We’ve all got the ability to feel competitive, so what’s to say we’re not going to be triggered into constantly trying to top our tracked results? Especially when some of these fitness apps allow us to view statistics of best performance and fastest time from other users or friends too.
So what’s my life been like without Runkeeper? The first couple of times I went for walks – even those intended as walks for exercise – without firing up Runkeeper felt weird. I had this slight uneasy sensation, like I had forgot to do something.
I’ve removed the app’s shortcut from my home screen, although I will admit I still have the app installed on my phone, like some kind of security blanket. Every once in a while Runkeeper sends me notifications to work out, but I’m thankfully strong enough to ignore them.