If you find yourself obsessively checking your tracker every time you leave the house for a run or power walk, you might be inadvertently taking away some of the joy you get from exercising.
Or so says a study conducted by researchers at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. In the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants reported feeling less fulfilled after participating in activities they once found fun. That is, they enjoyed it less when they kept checking their progress.
"In general, tracking activity can increase how much people do," says Jordan Etkin, the study's author. "But at the same time, measurement has these pernicious effects. Enjoyable activities can become almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun."
It's kind of like being a student and dreading exam day, says Amanda Dale, an ACE-certified personal trainer in Los Angeles.
"A fitness tracker is like a constant reminder of your progress, evaluating your every move and tallying up whether you are 'succeeding' at any given moment in the day. For some, it can feel like you're adding unnecessary social pressure instead of being what is supposed to be a stress-relieving activity."
So, while it's ever-important to remember that exercise should be fun, it's also true that physical activity takes many forms, says Jenna Wolfe, a health and wellness expert in New York City and author of "Thinner in 30."
"If you're exercising, I think trackers are what get you — and keep you — working out," she says. "We're in this amazing age of having access to data — we can find out right away how many steps we're taking, what our heart rate is and how many calories we're burning. It's a beautiful thing."
Fitness trackers can keep track of your steps, but maybe all that monitoring is causing you to miss the joys of exercising. (Photo: Vernon Chan/flickr)
At the same time, if your idea of exercise is taking a hike with your kids, a tracker might take away the joy of the activity.
"When I'm running around with my kids at the beach, I don't want to look at my wrist and track my heart rate," Wolfe says. "If the goal is to go out and have fun while doing an activity you love, enjoy the activity for what it is."
A new study finds that activity trackers may not work for the main reason a lot of people wear them: losing weight. Researchers found that adults who were dieting and wore trackers for 18 months lost fewer pounds than those who didn't wear fitness monitors. The data showed that those wearing the trackers actually exercised less than those who didn't wear them. The surprising study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In the end, however, both experts think fitness trackers are still worth it.
"I swear by trackers," Wolfe says. "People think they're doing enough, and then they see data and realize they could do more. It's a beautiful barometer that lets people see where they are and how they could do better."
"For those who are more goal-oriented and thrive on competition, a fitness tracker may actually make fitness more fun because it becomes a game," she says. "Can I beat my steps from yesterday? Can I get a gold star for reaching my goals? Some of my clients enjoy the intrinsic rewards that trackers give, whether it's just stepping more than the day before or actually getting a virtual ‘badge’ or 'cheer.' They ultimately find it lots of fun."
Editor's note: This study was published in March 2016 and has been updated.