Can a fitness watch make you anxious? |

OCTOBER 27, 2022

I bought a fitness watch and found myself more anxious about my sport than ever. Here are the steps I took to better utilize my wearable

Photos by Artur Łuczka/Unsplash and JP Talapian

This isn’t the article that’ll help you pick a fitness watch off the shelf. Nor is this going to be filled with tips and tricks to get the most out of whatever gear you’ve already purchased.

Rather, this article is my journey from fitness watch spectator to fitness watch owner, coddled with an adequate serving of the pronounced changes in performance and mental health the purchase provoked. 

A spectator and the paradox of choice

I don’t need to convince you that we consumers are beyond spoiled for choice with the variants and styles of fitness watches available. A dive into the online world discussing how to pick a watch is deceptively deep. Expecting a shallow plunge, you can keep swimming downward without ever reaching the pool floor. 

It’s overwhelming.

Fitness, however, should be waiting to meet every individual where they stand with arms wide open. On that basis, and with some key insights from friends, I decided to go for a watch with a GPS tracker but without the popular heart rate monitoring feature.

While heart rate monitoring features allow users to optimize their heart rate zones for fat burn, speed, strength and endurance, I waived the idea in favor of sticking with a no-frills pace tracker to get an idea of where I stood as a runner.

And just as soon as I did, I was discouraged

I thought it’d be smooth sailing as I slung the watch around my wrist, but soon caught myself heading into each run more and more anxious. “Will I beat my time?” “Will I keep my pace?” *Beep* “Oh gosh, I hope I’m still on pace.”

While one writer from The Australian Financial Review documents the compulsive and addictive checking of fitness data produced by these wearables, I was a typical example of compulsive pace checking. Every beep, in an almost Pavlovian fashion, was a cue to look at my wrist, gnawingly anxious to know my pace. “Heaven help me if this lap is slower than my last.”

So long as that thing on your wrist is pushing you to be better, use it. But the moment the worries and anxiety crop up, use mindfulness to take control once again. Your fitness, after all, is a body of so much more than times and figures. It’s a total expression of how you are feeling and how you are interacting with the world

The worries didn’t cease at the end of the run either. They oozed into questions that would’ve been answered by more comprehensive fitness trackers. “Is my resting heart rate still as low as it used to be?” “Is my VO2 max as strong as I remember?”

If that wasn’t already enough

Enter the social side of owning a fitness tracker. Let me start by saying that I adore the online fitness community. It’s a space where people can congregate (as we certainly cannot meet in person) and pep each other up to reach bigger and more challenging fitness goals.

There is, however, an inevitable human tendency to take a look at someone else’s fitness performance, genuinely feel happy for them and then wonder “why aren’t I that strong?” Quickly, after setting up all the necessary online presence features, I found myself out on runs with what I have come to call “pace anxiety.” This is the term I’ve given to the fear that my pace has fallen short of someone else’s or even my own previous efforts. 

This is not to point fingers at the whole establishment of fitness tracking and fitness-focused social media and claim “you dulled my performance.” Rather, this is a friendly assertion that there is a healthy relationship to be had with our fitness tracking devices and that what I had isn’t it.

My fitness watch journey
This is my journey from fitness watch spectator to fitness watch owner, coddled with a serving of the changes in performance and mental health the purchase provoked

The tips from an owner

In a discussion on fitness trackers, Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., psychology professor at Boise State University, says that fitness tracking is healthy when it motivates you but is unhealthy when “that tracker usage … interferes with things you’d usually do.” Usually, I’d run and be quite pleased with myself, noticing when it’s a bit easier for me and getting myself through the days during which it felt a little harder. 

My relationship with my tracker wasn’t healthy, but I certainly didn’t want to abandon it completely. This little thing on my wrist had the potential to help improve my fitness after all. So here’s what I did:

  1. I took it off (for a week). The Financial Review article offered the idea of using the device for just one session per week and for utilizing the sleep tracking functions every now and again. Rather than gaining utility on my purchase one day per week, I opted to ditch the thing altogether for a week every time I felt the pace anxiety returning.
  1. I admitted that I cannot be strong every time. In a world that rewards consistency and constant grind, acknowledging that life is filled with external factors that temporarily dampen our athletic performance is a step toward being gentler with ourselves.
  1. Recover. It’s important. From replenishing glycogen (energy) stores, repairing muscle fibers and producing new blood cells to simply feeling better, resting is important. “Today I will recover” is the permission to push less. And you need to give this to yourself.
  1. Hold your fitness as your own. Competition is the shot in the arm that gets us out of bed at five in the morning with a bit more vigor. But as our fitness activities make it online, so too does our human ability to compare. Caveat: online, we have the whole world to compare ourselves to. Draw the inspiration you can from whatever feats you see online, but draw a thick line in the sand between what you do and what you see. 

Let anything you add to your fitness regimen be an enabler

So long as that thing on your wrist is pushing you to be better, use it. 

But the moment the worries akin to my pace anxiety crop up, use the mindfulness you have grasped to take control once again. Your fitness, after all, is a body of so much more than times and figures. It’s a total expression of how you are feeling and how you are interacting with the world.

I am completely certain that my move from spectator to owner is one made in the right direction. The next move for me is a mental one. 

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