Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

Fitness Trackers Can Create Unfit Athletes

Recently, I made the harrowing trek from Walsh to the Plex 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 while my veins flooded with anxiety and guilt. How could I not have recorded this workout? I thought. Great, now it’s all a waste, it doesn’t even matter. Even though I was moving my body doing something I loved, if 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 pull fitness trackers have on those using them—especially athletes, who may not have a choice. 

This extreme pressure was felt by 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 an 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. Through the measurements shown on these DEXAs, Oregon's athletes were recommended to reach a certain body fat percentage, often one that was nowhere near sustainable. 

When Robert Johnson, head of the Oregon track program, was asked to comment on these allegations, he claimed that these scans were only important because they provided numbers on all their athletes to staff. Further emphasizing how vital numbers were to track, he stated, “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 or something so insignificant to their person and athletic ability as their weight. As top tier athletes on a very high-performing team, I find it hard to believe that none of these women are healthy and fit because they have a body-fat level higher than what is “recommended” based on numbers. The notion that if a person is thinner, then 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 her losing her period for about 3 years. Her unsafe weight loss under the toxic coaching methods of Alberto Salazar heavily impacted both Cain’s performance and mental health. “I ran terrible during this time,” Cain stated. “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. One 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, saying that if they did not reach a BMI of 12 or 13, which is much lower than the average for women, staff would require extra workouts. Another story shared involved Robert Johnson asking a team member if she had recently started birth control because he claimed that her hips seemed noticeably wider. When asked about this incident, Jonson denied any and all involvement and then 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. Much better, Johnson. 

The experiences many athletes went through 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, a 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. They have become a sort of social media in recent years, letting users connect with friends to compete or share their activities. Though this seems a good idea in theory, having others view how many miles one runs or their lifting numbers can easily lead to the overworking of a person’s body as they try to appear insanely fit.

In her book Wellbeing: Body Confidence, Health and Happiness, Emma Woolf explains that these trackers’ constant 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. And 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 wrist. BBC reported on this intense anxiety surrounding the results of fitness trackers, making the point, "I think 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 who 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 I have seen to actively prioritize recovery time. And unlike the DEXA scans at University of Oregon, BC’s coaching staff does not have access to their players’ results, nor is WHOOP mandatory. 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 directly on your person could be a useful strategy in distancing athletes, at least a small amount, from their data. 

Though WHOOP is not a perfect fitness tracker, (I doubt one exists in today’s image-obsessed market), it is a step in the right direction. It is paramount that companies who 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. I hope companies and coaches alike who claim they work towards total health yet emphasize image stop and listen. They are talking to you. 

Lover of brunch and the O.C. Cannot spell the word defeiently to save my life.