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Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

Fitness Trackers Can Create Unfit Athletes

Recently, I made the harrowing .2 mile trek from my dorm to the gym for a quick treadmill run (walk). About 15 minutes into my workout, I looked down at my wrist to check my mile time on my Apple Watch. To my horror, I had left the watch in its charger back at the dorm. I immediately stopped the treadmill, my heart racing, my veins flooding with anxiety and guilt. How could I not have recorded this workout? I thought. Now it’s all a waste- it doesn’t even matter. Even though I was moving my body doing something I loved, because it wasn’t being logged into my rings I convinced myself it was the same as laying in bed. 

Though I now understand how insignificant my watch is in regards to how I feel about my workout, there is something to be said about just how much influence fitness trackers have on those using them—especially athletes, who may not have a choice. 

This influence weighed heavily on the shoulders of many on the University of Oregon's women’s track and field team- so much so that last month, 6 athletes left the team due to worries that the methods used by staff to monitor their health would soon lead to an eating disorder. The women stated that they were made to feel intense shame and guilt surrounding food through the process of mandatory DEXA scans, which are scans of their bone density, body fat, and muscle mass. Based on these measurements, training staff recommended many of the university’s athletes reach a certain body fat percentage, often one that was nowhere near sustainable. 

Robert Johnson, head of the Oregon track program, asserts these scans are important because they provide staff with necessary data on all their athletes. He claims, “A good mathematician probably could be a good track coach.” This ideology seems terribly flawed and incredibly damaging. A coach is supposed to offer support, not see their athletes, the people under their care, as numbers. As top-tier athletes on a very high-performing team, it is hard to believe that none of these women are healthy if they have a body-fat level higher than what is “recommended.”. 

The notion that if a person is thinner, they’ll run faster has been refuted countless times—just ask Katie Cain, who was the fastest girl in America...until she joined Nike.  While in Nike’s now disbanded training program in Oregon, she was advised to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, which resulted in the loss of her period for about 3 years. Her precarious weight loss under the toxic methods of coach Alberto Salazar heavily impacted both Cain’s performance and mental health. “I ran terrible during this time,” Cain readily admits. “It reached a point where I was on the starting line and I lost the race before I started because in my head all I was thinking of was not the time I was trying to hit, but the number on the scale I saw earlier that day.”

One of the six women who left the Oregon track team had not gotten her period in over a year due to the low body mass percentage she was conditioned to achieve during her time on the team. Another of the departing athletes spoke up about the practices used by staff to “incentivize” those on the team to lose a damaging amount of weight. If all on the team did not reach a BMI of 12 or 13, the source relays, which is much lower than the average for women, staff would require extra workouts. Another story shared involved Johnson asking a team member if she had recently started birth control, claiming that her hips seemed noticeably wider. When asked about this incident, Jonson denied any and all involvement and went on to say that if he ever asked about birth control regarding his athletes, it would only ever be to advise that the women use one with no weight-gain side effects. 

The experiences many athletes endured on the University of Oregon's track team are disgusting and disheartening, but they are not unique. People across the country have had to retire, or at the very least take a break, from the sport they adored because exercise and food became stressors. 

A variable that seems to exacerbate patterns of disordered eating or a warped mindset around exercise is the fitness tracker. Be it an Apple Watch, Fitbit, Garmin, or possibly an app like Strava, fitness trackers have begun to rule the world of so-called health through their intense notification system and emphasis on calories. 

In her book Wellbeing: Body Confidence, Health and Happiness, journalist Emma Woolf explains that these trackers’ constant, well, tracking of data such as diet, activity levels, heart rate, and sleep sells the idea that if you just close these rings or log this number of miles, the body you want to see in the mirror will be yours. “It’s exhausting just to think about,” Woolf admits. 

She’s right. People exhaust themselves on their way to the “perfect” body, justifying their massively taxing exercise schedules or harrowingly restrictive eating patterns through a device on their wrists. BBC reported on this intense anxiety surrounding the results of fitness trackers, stating, "if you're going to have a [fitness] app it needs to tell you when to stop, to stop you going too far."

WHOOP, a Boston-based fitness company that just signed a multi-year partnership with Boston College, may do just that. Though WHOOP’s elevator pitch of being “a personalized 24/7 digital fitness and health coach that helps people unlock their inner potential and optimize behavior” seems intense, it is one of the first fitness trackers to actively prioritize recovery time and the body’s natural “strain” rather than the arbitrariness of burnt calories. It also may be helpful that the data is not displayed directly on the device's face as an Apple Watch’s rings are. Having results stored on your phone rather than on your person could be a useful strategy in distancing athletes, at least a small amount, from their data. 

Unlike the DEXA scans at the University of Oregon, BC’s coaching staff does not have access to their players’ results nor is using the WHOOP mandatory. Not wishing to be identified, a BC athlete said, “I’ve heard at other schools the coaches can see the WHOOP data and it seems pretty toxic. [Athletes] have to make sure to take their whoops off on the weekend or make sure it dies before the weekend so their coaches can’t see.” This flexible application of the device could alleviate the stress put on athletes to maintain a certain data-driven figure. 

 When asked about the possible mental toll such a device could take on their teammates, the athlete is hopeful. “Honestly, I don’t think people obsess over it a lot…like in terms of how it shows calories and stuff. A lot of people mentioned how they didn’t realize how many calories we normally burn in a day, so it wouldn’t be the kind of thing where they’re obsessing over that and restricting what they eat. It’s the opposite actually.” 

Though WHOOP is not a perfect fitness tracker, (one may not exist in today’s image-obsessed market), it is a step in the right direction. It is paramount that companies that produce fitness trackers begin prioritizing their consumers’ health over their physical appearance. There is an overwhelming amount of pressure to look a certain way and the devices we trust to keep us healthy, both mentally and physically, should not exacerbate this. 

Through their stories, the women who left the University of Oregon’s track team shed light on an ugly, yet dominant, aspect of sports psychology. Companies and coaches alike who claim they work towards total health yet emphasize image should stop and listen. They are talking to you.