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Believe it or not, using your Fitbit can become unhealthy

Lisa A. Goldstein is a freelance journalist with a Master’s in Journalism from UC Berkeley. She loves to read, torment her kids, and can type over 150 words a minute.

Experts explain how using a Fitbit can result in unhealthy habits

If you find yourself doing crazy things because of what the fitness tracker says, it might be time to look more closely at its place in your life.

“When the Fitbit owns you instead of you owning the Fitbit, that’s when it becomes a problem,” says Dr. Stephen Graef, sports psychologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Indeed, some people find themselves obsessing over goals. Becky D’Angelo-Veitch, a Fitbit owner, found herself with 10 minutes the other night, so she walked laps around the downstairs of her house to get the extra 1,000 steps she needed. She’s started leaving her iPad home when she goes to work, because she only has the app on her iPad and was checking it too much during the day.

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On the other hand, not all users consider fitness trackers to be stressful. Julie Grisham, owner of a Fitbit One, says the Fitbit has become a motivator for her; she sets small goals and ties them to specific activities.

Joke Slagle says she competes only with herself, and if she doesn’t meet a goal one day, she tries to make sure to meet it the next. “It just keeps me motivated to keep moving and take an extra walk or play outside with our kids/pup,” she says. She doesn’t use it for calorie burning statistics or sleep, just activity levels.

And that's the right idea.

One downside to this kind of technology is considering it a scientific tool when, in reality, it’s only an accountability tool, says Eliza Kingsford, licensed psychotherapist, group fitness instructor and executive director of Wellspring Camps. “People shouldn’t be exercising as a way to ‘earn’ extra calories, and this inherently works against them,” she says. She adds that the algorithms used to determine calorie consumption are based on height, weight and age, which vary widely by person.

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Another downside is becoming too externally focused and motivated, says Dr. Graef. “Rather than just being mindful of eating or exercising, we are instead too focused on the outcomes,” he says. We’re not enjoying the process.

If you’re exercising through pain just to make goals, then you’re making decisions based on technology instead of what your body is telling you, which isn’t always good. “Keep in mind that the Fitbit isn’t responsible for your success,” says Dr. Graef. “You are! It’s just a data tracker.”

He preaches moderation: “Go some days of exercise or eating without using [a fitness tracker]. Park far away in the parking lot because it’s healthy, not to get your '10,000' steps. Go outside for a run, and actually notice the sounds of nature, the feel of your breath, rather than constantly looking down at the digital reader. By not using [the fitness tracker] on some days, it reduces the addiction.”

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If you’re prone to exercise addiction or have a more addictive nature in general, you may want to avoid this technology. If you use it, set realistic goals. And always be aware.

“Are you starting to notice that you feel a bit of anxiety if you forget your Fitbit?” asks Dr. Graef. “Do you never exercise without it? Do you rely too much on the data and use this data and only this data to determine success? Treat this exercise monitor as any other piece of technology (laptop, cellphone, TV). Know when too much is too much, and balance it out.”

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