How to Use a Fitness Tracker Without Letting It Rule Your Life

The constant reminders to get more steps or burn more calories can be triggering—especially for perfectionists.
How to Use a Fitness Tracker Without Letting It Rule Your Life

My typical bedtime routine used to go something like this: change into my pajamas, brush my teeth, perform my skin care regimen…and then frantically dash around the house until I closed all the rings on my Apple Watch.

Rationally, I knew this behavior was ridiculous—and actually counterproductive to an effective evening wind-down. But I felt like I had to meet my watch’s preset goals, which included exercise minutes, calories burned through movement, and hours where you stood up for at least one minute.

After months of this dynamic, my relationship with my fitness tracker came to a fever pitch after I ran-walked the London Marathon this spring. While I lay in the hotel room, recovering from nearly four hours of intense exercise, my watch pinged me to get up and move to achieve my stand hours goal for the day. The ridiculousness of this command after I’d just finished a freaking marathon prompted an epiphany: Why the hell do I blindly follow this device’s directives? Clearly it doesn't always know what’s best.

As a fitness writer, I’m aware exercise watches can be great tools for tracking workouts and staying motivated with your movement goals. But for certain folks, especially those with perfectionist tendencies (ahem, me), they can also encourage unhealthy behaviors, like obsessiveness over reaching certain generic metrics, not taking enough rest days, and feelings of failure when certain objectives aren’t achieved.

And it’s not just me: Anybody could become vulnerable to falling into an unhealthy relationship with their fitness trackers, Jason von Stietz, PhD, a licensed psychologist with CBT SoCal, tells SELF. The good news: There are simple steps you can take to mend a shaky dynamic with your wearable—so I sought out some expert advice to finally figure out how.

Fitness trackers can be helpful, but may also come with downsides.

First things first: Fitness watches can provide a ton of helpful perks. “A major benefit of these devices is the ability to track progress and accountability over time,” Justin Ross, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and director for workplace wellbeing at UCHealth in Denver, tells SELF. Logging these metrics can be really inspiring and motivating, says Ross, especially if you’re working toward a specific goal—say, to improve your mile time by a minute, or to get into the habit of working out three days a week.

Additionally, watches can provide objective data to motivate change, Ashley Brauer, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Mind Body Endurance in Minneapolis, tells SELF. For example, when I first got my watch, it opened my eyes to how sedentary I was during the work day. Realizing that I sometimes sit for hours on end encouraged me to incorporate more small bursts of movement into my day, a habit that helps my tight hips feel less achy. Other watches and wearables, like some Garmin watches and the Whoop band, also track recovery as well as activity. That means they can help you understand when it’s probably best to take a rest day versus pushing through another workout.

On the flip side, fitness watches can encourage you to ruminate on numbers that may not really be relevant, or be actual measures of true health, says Ross. For instance, on his runs, Ross’s watch tracks vertical oscillation (how much you move up and down with each step) and stride length (the distance between footstrikes)—two variables that are not very useful for most recreational exercisers. Watches can also encourage you to fixate and stress over metrics that may not be all that accurate in the first place, such as how much REM sleep you got last night.

Wearers can also make “unhelpful assumptions or inaccurate conclusions about the data,” says Brauer. For example, maybe you’ve been really stressed at work and have missed a few of your regular workouts. Your watch may tell you that you’re “recovered” and ready for a HIIT routine, when in reality, what your body really needs is a gentler form of activity to help regulate your mental stress.

Another downside of fitness wearables is that they can be very intrusive, says Brauer. They’re always on your wrist and often pinging, which can “interrupt the process of using your own intuition and listening to your body,” she explains. “People can get bombarded with notifications, and then every time they see a notification, they can feel pressure to do it,” says von Stietz. “And then if they don't do it, then they can feel like a failure.”

Lastly, the watches can sometimes encourage “all-or-nothing” thinking, says von Stietz, which basically means that people may feel like they have to achieve everything the watch is telling them to do. When that doesn’t happen, they can feel so discouraged that they give up on their fitness goals entirely.

How do you know if you have an unhealthy relationship with your fitness watch?

If your device is “creating negativity in your life, it’s probably time to question your relationship with it,” says Ross. Here are specific signs your watch dynamic may be unhealthy, according to Brauer.

  • You start to judge whatever activity you’re doing. For example, you may start labeling your workouts (or even yourself) as “good” or “bad” depending on certain watch metrics.
  • You’re using the watch more frequently or intensely. For example, instead of just strapping one on to gauge your run, you start wearing it to track every single movement.
  • The watch is interfering with other areas of your life—maybe you continually cancel plans with friends to meet certain watch targets or you leave work early to close your rings.
  • You have obsessive thoughts or behaviors around your watch or its metrics.
  • You develop a dependency on the watch, relying on the device in place of your own feelings and sensations (for example, letting a bad sleep score make you feel like you won’t be able to manage your day); feeling like you have to do what the watch is telling you; or thinking your movements don’t “count” unless they were logged by the watch.
  • You notice increased negative emotions in response to the watch, including things like anxiety, low mood, or a change in how you look at yourself.

If you notice any of the signs above, the below tips may help you establish a healthier dynamic with your watch. At any time though, if you feel like you need additional support, seek help from a mental health professional, says Brauer.

How to improve your relationship with your fitness tracker

Mending your relationship with your watch isn’t one-size-fits-all, says Brauer. Strategies that work for some folks may not be all that helpful for others. That said, there are some general tips worth trying.

1. Dig into your real relationship with your watch.

If you want to establish a healthier dynamic, you first must gain awareness of your existing relationship with your watch. This involves being honest with yourself about how the watch is serving you, how it’s hindering you, and whether you’ve developed any obsessive or dependent patterns around it, says Brauer.

To aid in this process, she recommends trying a mindfulness exercise where you pick two days—one where you wear the watch, and the other where you don’t—and take note of your experience, mood, and thoughts. Then, compare the reflections.

After trying the mindfulness exercise myself, I realized the watch was helping me incorporate more movement throughout my work day (a positive) while also causing me to become obsessive over closing my rings and eliciting feelings of failure related to certain metrics, such as when I noticed my VO2 max decline (two big negatives).

2. Recall why you wanted a watch in the first place.

If you find yourself obsessing over metrics, it can help to reconnect with why you first wanted the device. For most folks, that why is some variation of “I want to live an active lifestyle,” says Ross. From there, ask yourself if you are already achieving that “why.” If the answer is yes—for instance, you’re working out a number of times each week and getting in regular movement during the work day—then do your best to accept that that’s simply enough. The nitty-gritty watch metrics don’t matter.

In my case, I actually didn’t have a strong why behind having the watch—it was a surprise birthday gift and not something I sought out. Nevertheless, realizing that I already led an active, movement-filled lifestyle before I got the watch opened my eyes to the possibility that maybe I don’t need to be relying on it to dictate when and how much I move day to day.

3. Customize your watch in a way that works for you.

Instead of blindly accepting whatever generic fitness goals your watch comes programmed with—say, the classic 10,000 steps per day—customize the targets to fit you. “It's really important to be your own advocate and think about your own needs,” says Brauer. That might mean setting a step goal at a number that’s more doable for your routine—or it might mean ignoring that metric completely.

While goals can vary for each person, you may find it helpful to avoid the ones that are concrete, non-customized, or remain the same every day (say, like daily steps, stand hours, or closing all of your rings). Even if you programmed these metrics yourself, striving to hit the same targets each day interrupts your ability to be intuitive with your needs and also disregards “the fact that our needs change,” Brauer explains.

What’s more, the sheer number of metrics at your fingertips can be overwhelming. To reduce information overload, personalize your watch notifications as well as your watch face so that you’re only exposed to metrics that personally matter to you and are not bombarded by pings that stress you out. For example, if you find the calories burned metric spurs you into obsessive thoughts or behaviors around food, eliminate notifications for it and change your settings so it’s not staring you in the face with each turn of your wrist.

To help personalize your device, do some self-reflection to determine which data points are useful, motivating, and encouraging. Then, adjust your settings accordingly, says von Stietz. Again, what’s helpful will depend on your goals, but some metrics you may find useful include heart rate data—which can show how your body is recovering from exercise or other stressors—as well as reminders to take a moment and just breathe, says Brauer. That’s something that’s often difficult to do on our own without prompting, she adds.

4. Remember you are not your numbers.

Accept that the numbers on your watch are supposed to change day to day, Brauer says—a reminder that I found particularly helpful. Instead of beating yourself up over a slower running pace than your average, or that you missed three of your stand hours, try to see yourself as “being independent of the numbers,” says Brauer. Think about the other areas of your life where you excel—say, as a friend, a partner, or a parent. Your ability to close rings doesn’t have any bearing on them, right? Just as you’re more than your numbers, your life is richer than the small snippets of life that your watch shows.

It’s important to recognize that any fitness journey will have peaks and valleys, and that’s a totally normal and expected part of the process. “The idea that you should always be a linear trend upward is really misguided,” says Brauer.

As someone who once obsessed over my VO2 max—and felt upset if that metric dropped by even 0.1—I welcomed this advice and found it helped me be kinder to myself.

5. Try mindfulness meditation.

To reconnect with what your body is telling you—instead of just relying on your watch to know what’s best—consider adopting a mindfulness meditation practice. This can help you ID your energy levels, how your body is feeling, and your current mental state, says von Stietz. Tuning into these sensations “cannot be done by a watch,” says Ross. “That has to be done by you as a person.”

This can be as simple as closing your eyes and taking some slow, deep breaths, says von Stietz. Notice what thoughts, emotions, and sensations arise and resist the urge to judge them, he says. I’ve tried dabbling in meditation over the years and found it incredibly challenging for my busy brain to embrace, but I know that a regular mindfulness practice will be key as I work to reestablish a stronger connection with my body while scaling down my watch reliance.

6. Ditch the watch on occasion—or for good.

Consider taking regular breaks from your watch so that you can reconnect with how it feels to move your body versus hyperfocusing on specific watch metrics. “It's the reminder that once upon a time, we moved because it felt good, not because our watches were tracking how far or how fast,” says Ross.

At least once a week (and perhaps more often if you’re finding you have a lot of unhealthy behaviors surrounding your watch), complete a workout without your watch, says Ross. This will help ensure your watch doesn’t dictate how you feel about your routine, and instead can create a space where you can be more in tune with the present moment. You can also do this with sleep, says Ross: If you notice your watch is creating anxiety around your shuteye, leave it on your bedside table for a night or two. This can help quell your stress and allow you to better tune into how rested you actually feel.

In some cases, you may even decide to ditch the watch altogether. “Nobody needs to use a fitness watch,” says von Stietz. “If you find it's weighing you down, then you can just put it to the side.”

Taking that to heart, I recently took a five-day break from my watch. At first, I found it slightly disorienting to not have any sense of the various metrics I’d been fervently tracking for months. But toward the end, I came to really appreciate the simplicity of embracing my workouts for what they are and found a lot of brain space was freed up when I ditched my obsession over the data.

As a result, I decided to take a more prolonged break from the watch: I may put it on to track a rogue workout here and there, but on the whole, plan to focus on moving for the simple reason that it makes me feel good.