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How Healthy Is Our Obsession With Fitness Tracking?

From steps to calories to weight, we’re tracking it all. But could all of this data backfire?

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One annoying trait of my workout partner: It always knows when I’m slacking off. My partner isn’t another human being or even a four-legged companion; it’s a heart rate monitor. Our friendship started after I went through a Metabolic Assessment at Life Time Fitness. The 20-minute assessment provided me with a personalized heart-rate training program. From that point forward, my watch became a permanent member of my electronic arsenal, joining my iPhone and FitBit. Now more than ever, it’s hard to go for a run without (literally) tracking every single step.

I discussed my numbers preoccupation with Dr. Doug Jowdy, a sports psychologist with offices in Denver and Boulder. Jowdy has worked with athletes at every ability level, including Olympians like speed skater Apolo Ohno. He confirmed my suspicions: I’m not the only numbers-obsessed recreational athlete out there—especially here in Colorado.

“Because we’re a technologically driven society, people tend to gravitate towards wanting the numbers,” says Jowdy. The issue doesn’t lie in the numbers or the technology, he explained. It’s when athletes begin validating their workouts in the form of external metrics like miles, weight, steps, and reps instead of internal ones like self-confidence, enjoyment, and mastery. At that point, exercise often becomes a “have to” activity instead of a “want to.” That can lead athletes to overtrain, become stressed, and lose excitement for his or her sport.

How can athletes escape this numbers obsession and get back to the roots of their activities? Jowdy offers five suggestions:

  1. Reflect. When working with an athlete, Jowdy often leads with a simple question, “Why are you doing this?” What caused you to run/bike/lift/swim in the first place? Take a moment to pause and reflect about why you first started working out and why you continue to push yourself harder. Make sure that your current motivators aren’t all based around running more miles than someone else or competing in your age group.
  2. Incorporate rest and recovery. Intuitively, we know we need an off day every once in awhile, but that’s difficult to manage knowing your training buddies are still logging a workout. Jowdy adds, ”The social comparison or the competitiveness that goes on within a group of runners or cyclists really drives people to fall into the mindset of ‘I have to run,’ and if they don’t, they feel guilty.” Embrace the feelings of guilt and let your body recover at least one day a week.
  3. Cross-train. If you’re used to going out on a run five days a week, trade one or two days for another activity like ultimate frisbee or pick-up basketball. You’ll still get a great workout, but the variety will spice up your routine. “I find some athletes, when they get to that burnout stage, they’re bored,” Jowdy explains.
  4. Dump your technology. With headphones blaring and your watch beeping every mile, there’s one thing you’re not listening to: your body. We get so caught up in letting our devices tell us how our run is going that we forget to check-in with how we’re actually feeling. Reclaim this body awareness by leaving your gadgets at home. “Let go of the technology. Let go of the time. Run based on how your body feels,” advises Jowdy.
  5. Exercise with other people. Turn your workouts into social outings. Grab a handful of friends and head out for a run, ride, hike, or lifting session. Make sure the atmosphere is fun and not competitive. Regular group workouts can help reclaim the social nature of your sport and take your mind off your own performance.

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