Everyday Feminism is wonderful. They hit the nail on the head about fitness tracking in “Your fitbit is ruining your relationship with your body — here are 3 reasons why”. I never got a fitbit but I’ve done all sorts of fitness tracking. I’ve tried to use pedometers at various stages, and I’ve done MyFitnessPal calorie tracking, and, yes, I’ve used them to lose weight.
Well, after reading that article, plus delving a bit into the internet, plus thinking back to my own experience, I realized how calorie tracking can encouraging disordered eating. It really is what you make of it, and if you have a tendency toward disordered eating, it can make you hyperaware of what you’re eating and how you’re exercising, and not in a good way.
In theory there’s nothing wrong with tracking to get healthy. In practice, it can often be used to justify fat shaming… in numbers. (And it’s not as easy as just eating salad: salad is overrated. Plus more expensive.) But it’s easy to see how tracking calories could be addictive for the sake of losing weight which, as we know, is neither the whole picture of health nor is it for everyone. But I do think I learned a lot from tracking, and I do think there are ways to use it for your benefit.
- You don’t have to use it to lose weight. The apps were all built for weight loss facilitation: the numbers go red if you’re over but green if you’re under your daily caloric needs, even if you input weight gain as your goal. That’s a problem. But you don’t have to make that your goal. Instead, use it to track something like, say, how much sugar you’re eating. Substitute fiber and protein and fat for that sugar; see how that feels. These apps have a lot of potential beyond weight LOSS to tell you what the breakdown of your diet is. Because unfortunately, our food system (especially in the city where I live, where I tend to eat out a few times a day) tends to promote unhealthy choices, and that doesn’t necessarily mean more calories but includes it. If you track what you eat and find that your once-a-week muffin turned into 4-times-a-week, then maybe you can try to sub something a little bit more balanced.
- Use fitness tracking to log exercise and active transport. This is obviously only one for able-bodied people; your needs may be different depending on your abilities. But one thing I like about pedometers is that they can track your daily activity, outside of regimented exercise. Obviously, you can rely on intuition to know, but say that you make a resolution to exercise 5 days a week but you happened to have a day where you are too tired to go to the gym, and you go to your pedometer and find that you walked 20,000 steps! Then maybe the laziness is justified. Or maybe you’re tired because you only walked 2,000 steps. Or maybe you’re debating whether to take the crowded train and save 15 minutes over walking… maybe you’ll remember that you’d be rewarded with an extra few thousand steps and that will get you to make the choice. Sometimes I’m just not aware of how sedentary or active I’m being; and walking is one of those exercises that’s very hard to overdo, and that almost always makes me feel better. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be thinking of any active transport as “exercise”… maybe we should rebrand it as “active transport”.
- Use it for a while… then stop. This is ESPECIALLY true for the food one: you don’t want to be logging calories forever. Enjoy your vacation, enjoy your brunches, enjoy not trying to recall if you ate one slice of bacon or two. Remember to enjoy food. The way I see tracking is it’s a good way of assessing your baseline, identifying issues (“hmm, I seem to be eating all fried foods for dinner lately…”) and becoming more aware of the food choices you make. I’ve been eating a lot of sweet foods lately, concurrent with an increase in stress, so I may choose to log for a week sometime soon. But this doesn’t have to be something I do forever, only as a means for figuring out how I’m doing in navigating the prepared-food-choices available to me.
- Take into account your individual needs. If you have a history of disordered eating, maybe tracking will help you realize you are allowed to eat more than you are; or maybe it’ll trigger disordered thinking again. If you have a chronic illness or disability, better food choices will likely not fix everything. Depending on your individual case, you will need to decide what is right for you. Maybe exercise tracking is okay but calorie tracking isn’t, or maybe you just want to track sugar, or maybe you just want to track your heart rate, or maybe you don’t want to track at all.
- Think about other fitness trackers. For example:
- Tracking heart rate. Everyone has a heart rate, and it’s easy to measure. My high school cross country coach told us to do this first thing in the morning, since an elevated heart rate is usually the first sign of illness. But you may also find that if you’ve stuck with your walking-briskly-to-work routine your resting heart rate goes down accordingly.
- Tracking bike rides or running/walking routes, and sharing them with friends. This is a form of tracking that can be social and can help you keep a record of your adventures.
- Sleep tracking. If you are frequently sleep-deprived, this may help you figure out which nights you get the worst quality sleep.
- Last but not least, fitness tracking should be optional. In that Everyday Feminism article, there is mention of a health app that can’t be deleted from the phone; I have a few friends who have the same tracker. This is horrible news for someone trying to quit disordered eating/tracking: if the app is right there, they may fall into old patterns. This is a trend that must be stopped. We don’t all want our smartphones to be our nannies; it’s important to be able to pick and choose what apps are okay for our lifestyles. By making it a permanent app, your smartphone is saying it knows your health needs better than you. Screw you, smartphone.
What’s the takehome? It should be obvious by now that:
- We can’t equate fat with health.
- We can’t say that our bodies are entirely our choices: they’re shaped by the options available to us, by our ability status, by our health status.
- One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work.
- Fat shaming doesn’t work.
- Only tracking fat or calories is a surefire way to reduce your complex lifestyle to a single number. And that is a surefire way to get bored with life.
On the flipside, fitness trackers aren’t inherently evil; they can work with your feminist lifestyle. But they must be optional, and they must be varied.
One thing I do wish though, is that there were food trackers that also logged the following:
- Cost of the meal, to analyze what’s the most bang-for-your-buck.
- How seasonal that meal is.
- How big a carbon footprint for that time of year for that geographical locale.
Those are things I’d love to know.