The “Fine line between health awareness and health obsession”

Courtney examines the link between fitness habits and body image.

Courtney Bridges

The wearable health market has seen a significant influx in sales over recent years, with the market worth originating at  $2 billion , in 2014, to now see continuing growth.

With this increased use, and increased media exposure to the fitness industry, discussions on the effects of wearable fitness trackers are more frequently being highlighted. Grazia Maria Lally’s article in 2016 is one that alludes to points of this discussion that seem even more relevant today. 

Main themes include whether they complement the progression of fitness habits, or hinder the mental health of its user, as Matt Roberts states ‘it is the fine line between health awareness and health obsession’, with voiced concern about ‘over-reliance’. 

This has developed further into considering the question of the user, over the device itself, and if devices provided from Fitbit or Apple, to name just two, are safe in the hands of some and not others. 

Dr Bijal Chheda-varma, a psychologist specialising in body image at London’s Nightingale Hospital, London’s leading private mental health hospital offering general and more specific mental health related services, suggests how: ‘they can be great motivators, but in the wrong hands they can exacerbate the kind of excessive calorie-counting that goes with eating disorders’. 

‘One of the key symptoms of an eating disorder is a need for control and a huge focus on calorie counting via eating or exercise. There’s been an increase in people using trackers […] who have become obsessed. However, this is only the case if you’re already vulnerable’. 

Varying degrees of vulnerability has become an aspect crucial to the wearable fitness market debate and what the intended aims of their use are. 

This technology provides people with the opportunity to track goals, progress further and create accountability within their individual fitness training and wider fitness journey. However, it is crucial to recognise the ability these devices can have on shifting the fitness narrative. 

The health benefits that they do monitor, have the ability to overlook other health benefits to be gained by exercise – including increased social mobility, endorphin release and stress-relief. 

Furthermore, increasing reports suggest how the topic and focus of body image these devices provide are not only limited to impacting the rise of, or cases of eating disorders, but are also linked to mental health conditions including anxiety and depression. As Tom Madders  from YoungMinds suggests, that fitness tracking can become ‘all-consuming [which] could cause negative consequences for mental health’.

Despite plus-size campaigns initiated by sports brands such as Nike in 2019 with stores featuring plus size mannequin’s, alongside social media influencers supporting messages of inclusivity within the fitness world, the quest of fitness for young people according to The Digital Health Generation continues to be ‘a six pack or a thinner body’. 

A BBC article shares Uuniversity of Bath, Salford, and Canberra study respondents’ comments. 

Respondent Leif stated how society judged people by their appearances, and many went to great lengths to improve their physique: again, referring to this ‘fine line between going too far and developing an obsession’. 

With a fitness tracker not reflecting the instant results that the device’s statistics show, this can be seen to add to the pressures of looking a certain way – a belief the fitness industry is trying to detach from, yet with this market’s continued growth, the fitness industry’s image will remain confused.

Whether a solution to distinguish between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship with wearable fitness trackers needs to be an increased education surrounding digital impacts on health, or for a shift in its use narrative to be increasingly debated, is a subsequent discussion that will develop in coming years. 

Currently, it is important to be mindful of both the positive and negative roles wearable trackers can bear, to continue to shift ideals of the ‘perfect’ body image, and increase awareness of the current power and reach technology can hold within our modern world. 

And if anyone ‘feels they are becoming compelled to track calorific output of activity, they should seek the advice of a healthcare worker as soon as they can’ – Mary George , spokesperson for B-eat eating disorder charity.

Helplines available and offering additional support include:

Beat: 0808 801 0677 (helpline) 0808 801 0811 (studentline) or https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/ 

YoungMinds: https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/ 

Shout: 85258 (helpline) or https://giveusashout.org/ NHS: really helpful health and wellbeing page, listing mental health charities, organisations and support groups https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/