Is Your Fitness Tracker Making You Anxious?

A new study from researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that fitness watches can increase activity—and anxiety—levels.
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Fitness watches are marketed to consumers as an easy, affordable way to monitor all of your daily health goals—from the number of minutes spent sleeping to those spent on the mat. However, a new study from the University of Copenhagen found that in some users, activity trackers may actually increase anxiety levels.

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While such trackers are marketed as tools to demystify a user’s health needs, access to copious amounts of minute-by-minute health data may not be beneficial for the average user (read: ones without medical degrees).

The study measured the response of users with chronic heart diseases to fitness watches. Users wore a FitBit Alta HR wristband for a period of 3 to 12 months. The researchers conducted 66 qualitative interviews with the subjects over the course of the study. The users reported conflicted feelings throughout the study—feeling both empowered and anxious with the amount of health data they had access to.

They reported feeling more encouraged to hit daily step goals (10,000 for FitBit users), but also reported feelings of guilt when they didn’t meet those goals. (The benefits of 10,000 steps a day are a myth. In 2019, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the benefits of walking plateaued at 7,500 steps per day.)

In an interview, Tariq Osman Andersen, the University of Copenhagen study’s lead researcher, was optimistic about the future of fitness trackers for patients with chronic illnesses. He said while fitness trackers may offer users the ability to consistently monitor crucial health data, including their heart rate, users need help interpreting and managing the data from medical professionals.

More coordination between users of these watches and medical advice may not be far away. Apple, which sells the Apple Watch, is rumored to be designing their next model to better help users with mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, through a comprehensive mental health abnormalities detection system.

Such a system would enable users to have the tools necessary to help regulate their health issues—rather than leaving them to decipher the data on their own. Instead of giving users anxiety, these new trackers could do the opposite—help them treat their anxiety.