Can Too Much Health Tracking Actually Hurt You?

“This morning you woke up 35 minutes before your goal of 6:30 am. Occasionally waking up early is OK, especially if you are feeling rested.”

With this text, my electronic sleep coach is trying to make me feel better about not sleeping, though I keep wondering: If I continue to get as little sleep as I’m getting, will it start shouting at me? I also get this text, interrupting my game of Words With Friends, at 11 pm: “Time to get ready for bed. Good night.” In my head, it sounds like I do when I’m trying to get my kids to go to sleep: GOOD. NIGHT.

I bought a Beautyrest Sleeptracker because I wanted to figure out why I seemed to log enough hours of sleep yet was always tired. And, true to its promise, the tracker provided my heart rate, breathing rate, and time spent in deep sleep versus light sleep versus REM sleep. It does all this via a scientific advancement known as magic. Or that’s what I call it, anyway, since I have no idea how a wafer inserted under my mattress can determine these things. All I know is, I have every last detail of my sleep history, everything is perfectly normal, and I’m still tired. Unfortunately, my sleep coach doesn’t have a measurement for “You’re too old to have teenage sons,” because I suspect this is the source of my problem.

Still, the more information the better, right?

It seems, at this point in our history, that we cannot have enough. We have Fitbits, TomToms, ShapeScales, and other trackers to monitor our health with a band, clip, or smartwatch, and almost 30% of Americans use them. When surveyed, more than half say they do it “to maintain or improve physical condition or fitness.” The second most popular reason is to get motivated to exercise. Third is to give themselves something new to worry about. It’s possible I’m making up the third reason, but I don’t think so.

I asked my friends about trackers. There was a sizable group that unequivocally adored them and credited their monitoring with a level of body awareness they wouldn’t otherwise have. “I love my Fitbit,” Denise told me. “It motivates me to move more.” Lesley agreed with her: “The best part is feeling that party on my wrist when I’ve met my goal.”

Fine. But there’s a darker side to these gadgets.

Last week, a girlfriend and I set out on a hike, rewarding ourselves with lunch at the end. We whipped out our iPhones: She had walked 5.2 miles, and I had walked 4.4. Why? “Different strides?” She offered weakly. I don’t know why. But I was so irritated that I made her promise to trade phones with me on our next walk. Feeling competitive does not always bring out my finest qualities.

Nor, for other people, does feeling pressured.

”After a while it became me versus the Fitbit. I’d be pacing before I went to sleep to get in my steps.”

”I’m a very goal-oriented person and someone who’s exercised my whole life,” Laurie told me. “At first I loved the Fitbit. Then I found that I couldn’t relax until I hit a certain number. After a while it became me versus the Fitbit. I’d be pacing before I went to sleep to get in my steps—or waking up in the middle of the night to see how high-quality my sleep was. Is it a deep sleep, not deep, how long am I up? And, well, you could see how this might not be very good for my sleep.”

Rebecca had a different problem with her tracker: It brought back bad memories.

She fell in love with a wearable gadget called the BodyMedia Weight Management System that monitored steps, sleep, and calories burned and was integrated with a calorie-counting program that tracked food intake. At first she and the tracker were a perfect match. “But then it began to feel like judge and jury over every little thing—wine with dinner, pizza night, a short workout,” she said. Like a sulking teenager, she began to rebel—by exercising less and eating more cookies. Finally, she said, “I had to end the relationship because it was like the bad boyfriends I’d had when I was younger—it constantly disappointed me, and no matter what, I never felt good enough.”

She still keeps her tracker—smashed with a hammer—in a little jar.

Me? I understand all too well the guilt and stress mingled with the crazy bursts of enthusiasm. In addition to my sleep coach and my iPhone app, I have three Fitbits. (I keep buying them and losing the little processor that makes them work, so essentially I have three very expensive rubber bands.) And I know I will be seduced by the siren song of the next new gadget. For a short time, I’ll track everything madly. Then I’ll fall short. Then I’ll ditch it.

Until, that is, the day someone comes up with a tracker for reading, playing Words With Friends, and couch surfing. I’ll keep checking that one, too. And I will win every time.

This article originally appeared on Prevention

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