If you’re looking to lose weight or boost your endurance, there’s a tool out there that’s begging to help you reach your goals. From phone apps to wearable devices, it’s possible to track every aspect of your existence these days. But all this measuring can be too much of a good thing.
Double-tap if you’ve been here before: You diligently enter every ingredient of your smoothie, salad and stir-fry — only to be kept up at night ruminating whether you correctly entered that heaping tablespoon of almond butter into your calorie count. For some, tracking can bring out the worst in us, including our obsessive-compulsive tendencies and their passive aggressive cousin. (You know, the one that thinks, “My Fitbit has no idea what kind of day I’ve had. I just don’t feel like walking to the other end of the parking lot.”)
What’s more: New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that too much tracking might even sabotage long-term weight loss goals. But why? Read on to find out what and how much to keep tracking — and what’s OK to let fall by the wayside.
The Curse of the Nudge
In the study, researchers followed 471 adults ages 18 to 35 over 24 months and found that those assigned a “wearable technology device” lost less weight than those who didn’t. “We were surprised because we thought it would make a difference,” says co-author Renee J. Rogers, Ph.D., director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. “Having an electronic tool that would give you real-time feedback seems like a good idea.”
Trackers are indeed helpful to understand how many calories you’re burning so you can tinker with your diet or adjust your fitness routine. The problem, says Rogers, is that all those gentle reminders designed to be motivating can quickly become discouraging. “What happens when you get a notification at 8:30 p.m. that you’re only halfway to your exercise goal for the day? When are you going to get those extra steps?” says Rogers. “When is this prompting going to help you?”
In other words, if you’re being constantly reminded of what you’re not doing, it’s tempting to want to tune out such notifications — or chuck your tracker completely.
Trackers also don’t take into account the ups and downs of real life. “The technology is limited,” says Rogers. “All it knows is to tell you how many steps you need each day.”
But not all hope is lost. Check out our tips on how to reap the benefits of self-monitoring — without going insane.
5 Tips to Make Tracking Work for You
1. Use trackers as teaching tools.
“At the end of the day, we’re not machines. We’re people.”
Want to know what a serving of quinoa looks like? Or how long it takes to cycle 20 miles outside of a spinning studio? Trackers are incredibly useful to gain a quick learning curve. But they shouldn’t be electronic leashes. “I encourage my clients to use them for a couple of weeks,” says Jennifer Gibson, head of nutrition for the personalized coaching app Vida Health. “That’s long enough to give people a sense of what they need to do. If you need to cut back on calories, these trackers can help you understand what 250 calories looks like.”
2. Mix in other kinds of low-tech tracking.
Remember food diaries, like the kind you wrote down on actual paper? Such tried-and-true tools can help you stay accountable when keeping up with your fancy electronic tracker becomes too tedious. (We’re also loving the Bullet Journal trend, if getting crafty is your thing.) Or, take photos of your meals to give you a visual snapshot of what you’re eating. “It helps people see their portion sizes,” Gibson says. By integrating other kinds of information, you’ll realize how trackers offer just one snapshot of your health.
3. Focus on enjoying exercise rather than meeting quotas.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the details of your device that you forget to have fun. “The motivation to stick to your fitness routine has to come from the inside out,” explains David Zulberg, fitness coach and author of The Mind Body Synergy “Diet.” “We get so focused thinking ‘I need to do this amount of exercise’ that we’re concentrating on external things. At the end of the day, we’re not machines. We’re people.” The bottom line: When you enjoy doing something, you’re more likely to make it a habit.
4. Don’t get stuck on steps.
If you’re wearing a device that calculates steps, you might forget there are other kinds of exercise out there. Gibson’s husband became so focused on meeting his daily step quota that he gave up his high-intensity workouts in favor of lower-intensity routines in which he could log more steps. “He would skip his spin classes to fit in more steps because he was in a competition with his friends, and his cholesterol crept up,” she says. As soon as he incorporated aerobic exercise back into his routine, his cholesterol came back down. Moral of the story: Don’t lose sight of what you need to do for your big-picture health.
5. Trust your gut.
When it comes to food, there’s something to be said for cultivating an awareness of your body’s internal cues. Promise, you won’t (and shouldn’t have to) measure out every serving of quinoa for the rest of your life. Eventually, you’ll just know how much you should eat by how it feels in your body. That means logging off your tracker every once in a while so you don’t become too dependent on it, says Zulberg. And if you feel full, don’t keep eating because you already accounted for the calories. “The key to weight loss is getting back in touch with your natural instincts and re-programming your habits,” he says. “You want to change your approach to food and not just calculate numbers.”