When FitBits are bad for you

  • Are you suffering from “the nocebo effect”?
  • The hidden drawbacks from FitBits on your wrist
  • When too much information is bad for you

Last year, I was in a pub with one of my old friends.

He runs his own successful business and has a LOT of money – enough for a BMW sports car, a five bedroom London house and all the latest tech.

He was telling me about how he’d cut down on drinking and started doing high intensity fitness training every lunchtime.

“I even have a personal trainer,” he beamed.

“Oh, right.” I stared guiltily down at my chicken pie, buttered greens and pint of ale.

“And look at this,” he said, thrusting his wrist towards my face, upon which I could see one of the chunky black FitBits. “It tells me EVERYTHING.”


“Blood pressure, heart rate, body fat, sleep pattern, blood oxygen, daily steps… you name it.”

“I see…”

“You’re into your health stuff, Ray,” he said, “you should get one.”

The thing is, while it’s clearly working very well for my friend, I really shouldn’t get a fitness tracker.

My brain cannot handle access to that level of information ALL the time – certainly not on a gadget attached to my wrist.

It’s distracting enough having a smartphone!

For me, constantly monitoring myself leads to obsessional behaviour and raised anxiety levels.

To give you an example…

When I’m trying to control my weight, I start using bathroom scales. For a while, I weigh myself every day, getting annoyed or frustrated when it goes up by a pound for no obvious reason… and getting overexcited when it drops.

It becomes a compulsion that’s hard to shake and can get me down when it feels that I’m not making progress. So as soon as I know that I’m back on track, I put the scales away and judge things by how my clothes fit.

The same goes for a fitness tracker…

I don’t think having 24/7 access to information about my inner workings is something I’d want – if anything it would cause more problems that it would solve.

There are others who agree…

For instance, last December, Bloomberg published an article by Tim Culpan with the headline…

‘Beware that nocebo strapped to your wrist’

It was all about how fitness gadgets designed to improve your health can often end up making you feel worse.

All because of something known as the “nocebo effect”.

Obviously, you’ve heard of the placebo effect, when the simple act of taking a medication or herbal remedy can make you feel better, even if it’s a sugar pill with no medical benefit.

The mere expectation of improvement can trigger a healing response – or pain relief response – in your body.

Well, the nocebo effect works in the opposite way.

Coined in the 1960s, the phrase refers to a phenomenon where being given information about a health issue can trigger a response in the brain that INCREASES pain and anxiety.

You might have experienced this if you’ve ever googled a health problem and found yourself reading worrying information that makes you feel physically worse.  Or if someone talks to you about their health niggle and you suddenly start to sense sympathetic twinges in the same part of the body.

Well, imagine something that drip-feeds you good and BAD info about your body every minute of the day – that’s effectively what a fitness tracker is doing.

Ok sure, the good news can give you a motivational boost…

But the bad news can do the opposite.

For instance, let’s say you’re worried about your quality of sleep…

You wake up feeling pretty good. So you check your fitness tracker and it tells you that you actually slept badly. That knowledge can lead to you feeling more groggy and tired.

Or maybe you notice that your heart rate is higher than normal. This could trigger a response where your heart rate soars higher because your attention has been drawn to it and it kicks off a physical ‘fear response’.

The other potential issue is that fitness trackers can become addictive. You begin to obsessively monitor the results and push yourself to extremes to keep the numbers up.

How FitBits can make you take health risks

I looked around to find more on this topic and found a wonderful observation by the American writer and humourist David Sedaris.

He recently wrote an essay about how he became obsessed with his own fitness tracker.

“At the end of my first 65,000-step day, I staggered home with my flashlight knowing that now I’d advanced to 65,000 that there’d be no end to it until my feet snapped off at the ankles,” he writes.

“Then it’d just be my jagged bones stabbing into the soft ground. Why is it some people can manage thing like Fitbits, while others go off the rails and allow it to rule, and perhaps even ruin, their lives?”

There has been some research into this…

In 2017, a study about calorie counting and fitness tracking technology concluded that it could increase eating disorders and that “for some individuals, these devices might do more harm than good.”

Recently, many sleep specialists have reported an increase in people who are self-diagnosed with non-existent sleep disorders – all because they’re misinterpreting their sleep tracker feature.

But look – I’m not saying that smart watches are bad or that fitness trackers like FitBits are bad. So if you got one for Christmas, don’t throw it away.

Just be aware that for some people (like me) these gadgets can sometimes cause an increase in anxiety, along with addictive behaviour and even an increase in the perception of pain and illness.

Worth thinking about if you are considering getting a fitness gadget to help with your New Year’s resolutions…  and yet you are prone to worrying and overthinking!

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you do have one of these devices and find that they help – or don’t help!