4 Problems With Activity Trackers That Can Trigger Eating Disorders — And How To Fix Them

The rise of the activity tracker is undeniable. Jawbone, Fitbit, MyFitnessPal — trendy wearable wristbands (and, increasingly, smart clothing), tracking your calories, movement, and heartbeat — are no longer the next big thing, they're just a Big Thing, period. The activity tracking market is huge worldwide, and evolving: Apple's new Smartwatch is going to have an activity tracker, just as a matter of course. But as activity trackers become more normal, their much-documented downside — as potential fuel for eating disorders — is becoming a wider problem. But can the devices themselves be hacked to fix it?

The propensity of activity trackers and calorie counters to trigger eating disorders and cause relapses in previous sufferers is a pretty well-documented phenomenon by now. Since the New Republic published an article back in 2013 titled, ominously, "Hunger Games," personal stories have abounded from recovering anorexics and bulimics about how a wristband or activity tracker app pushed them back over the edge.

"Within less than a week of use, I became addicted," recovering anorexic and bulimic Andria Martin wrote on XOJane. "I had to wear it all the time and track every minute of activity correctly. Every bite of food. Every hour of sleep. Every everything."

But given this fact — and it pretty much is a fact, though the app and technology creators haven't commented on it (only FitBit has raised the issue in their community guidelines) — what role can the products themselves play in protecting vulnerable people from themselves? Let's take a look.

Problem #1: Trackers Tend To Reduce Health To Numbers

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The model of most food and activity trackers is fairly simple. They monitor the amount of calories in the food you intake, the amount you're burning through your daily activity, and give you a numerical basis for assessing your health. The temptation of this for people with eating disorders is both understandable and frightening. Eating disorders are often, at their psychological root, a desire for control — and any assistance in controlling your body, down to the minutest numerical element, must look like a godsend. (Journalist and recovering anorexic Arwa Mahdawi has called it techorexia.)

But calorie-counting is not a sufficient way of understanding how your body processes food — different foods tell the body to do different things, from building muscle to storing fat — and the mathematics of estimating calories in a food can be radically inaccurate.

How The Trackers Could Help: Health is a more diverse than just maintaining a certain level of "energy-in, energy-out," and trackers could very easily diversify to recognize that. Including elements like mood tracking, mindfulness, observing sleep patterns, stress management and other, less numerical aspects of health might be trickier than a simple algorithm-app, but they already exist in other forms. Making these elements just as important might help to lessen the problem.

Problem #2: Trackers Can Encourage You To Push It

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The main problem in trackers, aside from their addicting number-based model? There's no alarm bell, no stopping, and no concept of giving up or having a rest. As disorders like "exercise bulimia," where sufferers binge on exercise sessions, are a recognized problem, you may see why this lack of moderation and in-built stop signs might prove to be a difficulty.

There's been criticism of the inability in products like the FitBit to build in rest days, even amongst those of us who don't have vulnerabilities for disordered eating. And for good reason: the body requires rest or risks severe injury, and certain times are less appropriate for exercise than others.

How The Trackers Could Help: Concepts of restraint would actually be fairly easy to build in: people with eating disorders tend to be ruthlessly truthful in their data input, so the makers of the app could be fairly confident that their warning signs could be based on correct information. If the person logged too much exercise, too little food, or simply checked the device or app too often, an in-built system could suggest a rest day, raise a warning to a fellow exerciser, or activate a support system.

Problem #3: Trackers Tend To Encourage Focusing On Numbers Rather Than Your Body

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In some ways, thinking of your body as a machine, with inputs and outputs, is actually a very good idea. The problem? It can make us dissociate from our bodies as, you know, the things we actually live inside, rather than just elements to control and run up and down stairs. Activity trackers, with their numeration of achievement, are easy ways to draw the focus away from your body and onto "levelling up" and achieving "high scores" on your device.

This is helpful for some, but dangerous for people with eating disorders, who often suffer from severe dissociation from their own bodies and experiences. Eating disorders are all about turning away from the voice of your own body ("help! I'm hungry! I'm hurting!") and proving your own self-control by listening to something else instead. The something else, in this case, being a fitness tracker.

How The Trackers Could Help: How do you bring a device and a body closer together — and how can your device make you listen to your own needs rather than to it? A series of suggestions that prompt introspection and examination of your body, like "How are you feeling?" after a workout, "Are any of your muscles aching" a day later, or a "How is your mood today?", might serve to keep us all attuned, rather than tuned out.

Problem #4: Some Trackers Emphasize Negativity

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EJ Dickson over at Daily Dot pointed out in 2014 that there's a nasty trend in activity trackers and apps to emphasize some seriously punishing thinking. A particular culprit is Carrot Fit, which says horrible things to you until you lose weight. And then there's My Diet Coach, with its "motivational statements" like "Imagine what it would be like to have a flat belly. Do you want one? Control yourself!" or Fitbit's notoriously shaming smiley faces, which turn very grumpy if you dare to go below a certain activity level.

While that's acceptable at boot camp, it might really not be great for anybody whose self-esteem is shaky as it is, and who has a healthy tendency towards self-hatred. Self-hatred is not the key to motivation, guys.

How The Trackers Could Help: Some apps have already started to come out that target this element of calorie-counting products, specifically for people who are in recovery from eating disorders. Recovery Record is designed to help recovering sufferers keep track not only of their new weight and medical progress, but also their mood — and it's unfailingly positive all the way. Other apps, like Rise Up + Recover and Eating D, are in on the idea too; but they all, like every app with food diaries or activity levels (even if meant well), are vulnerable to exploitation.

A general move towards thinking positively and holistically about health — as about self-strengthening rather than punishment, as about more than just calories — could give a lot of people a bit more peace of mind, while still encouraging them to get off the couch.