How is tracking health data impacting our fitness?

Fitness watch wearers, health experts talk positives and negatives of tracking our every move

GTNS photo by Grace King

A woman wears the Fitbit Versa while lifting weights at The REC Center in Mt. Pleasant.
GTNS photo by Grace King A woman wears the Fitbit Versa while lifting weights at The REC Center in Mt. Pleasant.

When Jordie Dingman, with The REC Center in Mt. Pleasant, received a new Fitbit as a birthday present last year, she saw herself tracking her runs, bikes, swims and weight-lifting sessions.

Now, all she uses it for is to tell time and track her steps.

“I got to thinking I would use it for all those things — running, swimming, walking, weight lifting — and I realized it wasn’t registering it like I knew it should be,” Dingman said. “With weight training, for example, it would tell me I didn’t do any kind of workout because I didn’t get my heart rate up when I was lifting.”

Dingman said it was also mildly addictive for her at first. She programmed her Fitbit with a goal of five workouts a week. She got to the point where if she forgot her Fitbit at home for the day, she thought she might as well not even work out.

“It was getting obsessive,” Dingman said. “You joke about this, but you truly feel this way.”

Dingman would also look “obsessively” at her sleep cycle, she said. That all stopped when she had a baby six months ago.

“I don’t sleep anyway,” Dingman said with a smile. “You just have to take those things with a grain of salt and not rely on it.”

Dingman isn’t alone in her experience of how tracking health data can affect a person’s lifestyle.

In 2016, a study conducted by CNN revealed that 89 percent of their participants always had their fitness tracker on and on them, and 43 percent revealed they felt like activities they completed without their Fitbit were “wasted” and they felt less motivated to exercise.

“If you ever forget it and that almost detours you from doing a workout, then you’re getting obsessed,” Dingman said.

Dingman does still see a benefit to fitness trackers, however. For people who do their workout for the day and think they’re OK to sit for the rest of the day, Dingman said a fitness tracker could be beneficial.

Dingman said that working out maybe brings someone up to a few thousand steps. If they didn’t take many more steps after that, they didn’t move enough that day with the recommendation being at least 10,000 steps a day.

“Studies have shown that’s worse for you than if you’re just getting those little activities in all day long,” Dingman said.

Dingman said there are days, especially on the weekend, where she will look at her watch and see she’s only taken 5,000 steps that day. That’s when she knows it’s time to get moving and she will clean her house, for example. Dingman said it isn’t always about the workout, it’s sometimes about just getting moving a little bit.

Shelby Powell, of Mt. Pleasant, has been using her Garmin 4 Runner for the past three years. Before she switched to Garmin, Powell was a Fitbit wearer.

Powell said her Garmin helps her when she trains for marathons and half marathons as the built-in GPS tracks her miles and pace.

The Garmin also measures her heart rate, which she checks occasionally when she’s sitting at her desk or out for a run.

“It motivates me to be more active because I sleep better when I have more steps,” Powell said.

Powell said she feels like smartwatches and such could be unhealthy if someone were to obsess over the data and truly count each step, but it isn’t something she struggles with.

“I do get the urge maybe to run one more mile,” Powell said.

Elise Klopfenstein, dietitian at the Henry County Health Center, doesn’t see much of a benefit to tracking health data. People who do rely on fitness trackers should frequently evaluate their goals and check in with their feelings and emotions that go along with meeting or falling short of those goals, she said.

Klopfenstein said that while tracking provides information, the user needs to choose how they want to use it. Does it provide accountability? A support system? At the end of your goal, was it worth it? Is it still something you want to achieve or is it causing more harm?

“You have to evaluate if it’s a realistic goal and whether it’s helping or hurting,” Klopfeinstein said. “I say this to patients: I don’t count calories, so I’m not going to ask you to track calories.”

Klopfenstein does use a tracking app when she bikes, and said it can push her that extra two or three blocks, so she completes another mile. It can be that self-challenging push, she said.

When it comes to tracking calories, Klopfenstein said that people need to focus on the experience of eating and not just think of food as a calorie.

“Focus on the socialization, the flavor, the texture. Focus on it being part of the dining experience,” she said.

Klopfenstein said that for people who have a tendency to overanalyze everything or engage in negative self-talk, a fitness tracker probably isn’t the tool for them.

“We talk about where we are going with this electronic age, and the more data we have at our fingertips, does it make us more effective? I don’t know,” Klopfenstein said. “You just need to be mindful of how you’re using it.”