The Reasons I Wear a Fitness Tracker Have Nothing to Do With Fitness

In the last decade, fitness trackers seem to have practically replaced smart phones as a “must have” item. I’m not the most technologically savvy person out there. I approach it like an older woman – I’m perfectly fine with my 10-year-old Casio watch and $30 not-so-smart phone that can barely take a picture.

The explosion in popularity of fitness trackers seems like a backlash to the (largely American) obesity epidemic. Although I maintain a healthy weight through making fairly decent dietary decisions, I have to admit – I hate all things exercise related. If I’m working out I don’t care what my heart rate is – I’m impressed I even put on a sports bra and sneakers and gave serious thought to doing something. It’s overkill for me to track every step, every beat, every breath.

So if I told you I just bought my second fitness tracker, you might wonder why. Well, a few reasons – and none of them have to do with “fitness.”


It’s a non-pharmacological anti-depressant.

It can, sometimes, encourage me to get up, get out or simply shower when depression tells me to stay in bed for 40 hours. I feel silly knowing my little device (which I nicknamed Severus for all you Harry Potter fans) is going to show about 100 steps (to the toilet) in two days unless I get up. So I try.

I might try to spend five minutes on a bike, or walk to the mailbox, or do a few jumping jacks. I know, it’s not exactly a triathlon, but I will take the small victories with pride – because some days that’s a big accomplishment for me. And I feel like Severus is on my side – encouraging me to do what I can, even if that isn’t much by other people’s standards.

It allows me to work towards achievable goals.

I know I should take 10,000 steps a day or whatever – but I don’t live in New York. The only time I walked that much in one day was, in fact, at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Otherwise, in the south we drive everywhere. We have to. It’s hot and nothing is in walking distance.

But I can tell myself, “OK, I will get 2,000 steps today” and probably achieve it. If I’m feeling ambitious one day I can aim for more. Setting (achievable) goals and meeting them is one of the best ways to combat feelings of helplessness and desperation whether it is from a bad day with depression or a chronic illness that makes “big goals” feel impossible at times.

It shows me if it’s time to increase or change my heart meds.

The reason I bought a second one is because the original did not have a built-in heart rate monitor. Inappropriate sinus tachycardia is primarily what it sounds like – an inappropriate (excessive and rapid) increase in heart rate to the point of tachycardia. I have lived with it for so long that, even now having a diagnosis, I sometimes ignore it out of habit. It can easily be in the 120s just making a cup of tea and I won’t notice it. It usually takes an “incident” where it goes up over 150 before I realize I should probably check with my cardiologist about increasing the drugs. We’ve gone from 12.5 mg to 100 mg over the course of a few months, and now I can easily glance at my wrist and get a sense of whether my heart rate is being generally well-controlled. In that way it also encourages me to take care of myself, and my health.

It gives me a more accurate picture of how much sleep I’m getting.

These things are not exactly the most reliable way to monitor, well, anything. But sleep, certainly not. However, by comparing the number of hours I am getting at a lower dose of medication versus a higher one, or a different one, it helps me keep track of what is really contributing to my insomnia and what is helping.

It can also be useful for pointing out when I may be slipping into a depressive episode, as I tend to start having more difficulty getting to sleep, and end up sleeping for longer periods of time. Any changes in my sleeping patterns can be a signal that I might want to pay attention and make sure I am staying healthy and not ignoring any potential signs of trouble.

There is a downside to all of that though – it can easily become an obsession. Anxiety, eating disorders and obsessive tendencies are not always super compatible with wearing a fitness tracker. Counting steps (and calories) can become an obsession and cause tremendous anxiety if you don’t feel you are doing “enough.” I’ve had to learn to balance my tendency to think that way against the benefits of it. Sometimes I have to take a break from it, put it in a drawer and remind myself that life went on just fine before this fancy technology – and it will keep going with or without it.

So before you roll your eyes at the girl in the grocery store staring obsessively at her fitness tracker – remember she might be trying to determine if she should lie down in the middle of the aisle and call an ambulance before she has a cardiac episode. Or she might just be reveling in the fact that she got out of the house for the first time in a week. We should not be so quick to judge when we don’t know the whole story.

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Thinkstock photo via GeorgeRudy.

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