The Fitness Fad That Turned Against Me

Photographed by Shirley Yu.
I'll never forget the day I first walked 26,000 steps. I was on vacation in Krakow, Poland with my boyfriend, and that day we'd visited the city's ancient Wawel Castle, traversed medieval squares, picked over grimy antiques at outdoor markets, swung by Oskar Schindler's factory, and, at one point, found ourselves standing on the stones of what had been the Krakow Ghetto. At the end of the day, we returned to our Airbnb so jammed with historical relevance that we could barely speak. Then I took one look at my wrist and squealed like, well, someone who had not just been standing upon the relics of an atrocity.

"I broke my step record!"

"That's great, baby," my boyfriend answered automatically, in what had become a very, very familiar routine.

I'd been wearing pedometers and fitness trackers on and off for most of my adult life. When I was in diet mode, they became another way for me to measure how well my day had gone, steps being nothing more than negative calories or net carbs in my bonkers brain. When I was in between diets, they sat in cluttered junk drawers, now measuring just how big a piece of shit I was for not working out again.

Thank god I quit all that nonsense, right? A few years ago, when I escaped the diet cycle once and for all, I gave myself a fitness fresh start, too. Thanks to the magic of intuitive eating, an amazing trainer, and the body-positivity movement, I finally understood that exercise wasn't a barometer for my piece-of-shit-ness but a way to feel genuinely good. I learned to work out in a truly sustainable way, and see fitness as a way of taking care of a body I love, rather than punish it for being so hateful.

Given all this grand enlightenment, I felt totally secure strapping on a fitness tracker again. This time it wasn't the focal point of my obsession, but just a way to gather data, and to add a little fun to my exercise habits. I got a little virtual high five for hitting my step goal and that was nice! When I didn't hit my step goal, that was, you know, fine. It was way better when I did, but I wasn't gonna beat myself up over it because I don't do that anymore.

And I really didn't. But about a year ago, I realized there were a whole lot of things I was doing, instead. For example:

1. Devoting more and more of my gym time to the treadmill. I wasn't overdoing the exercise in general, but I definitely wasn't diversifying my routine. Sure, I liked the cathartic sweat I worked up on the StairMaster, the new upper body muscles I discovered on the rowing machine, and the incredible difference I felt when I found I could do a real plank. But not as much as I liked the little number on my wrist going up. Planks didn't make the number go up.

2. Walking around my bedroom at the end of the day, just because I was at 9,700 steps, and wouldn't it be nice if I could make it an even 10k? Oh, fuck, it's 11:58 p.m.! Better circle the room just a little bit faster, before it hits midnight and the numbers reset. Ooh, maybe I can get a jump on tomorrow's step count, too! Wait, no, that's crazy. Is it, though? Yes. Well…no, yes.

3. Defending my tracker to friends who suggested it might not be 100% accurate in counting my steps.

"Doesn't it count a step if you, like, wave your hand?" they'd ask.

"Um, I don't usually spend the day waving my hands in the air like I just don't care, okay? Anyway, no, it doesn't," I'd reply, waving my fist around as if gearing up for a punch. Then I'd shove my wrist in their faces just to prove how right I was.

4. Measuring visits to historic foreign cities in steps rather than the incredible sights I'd seen and experiences I'd had.

Okay, it wasn't quite that simple. Even at my most obsessive, I was nowhere near as bad as I'd been in my dieting days, back when I believed a workout wasn't over until you heard something pop. But finally, I had to admit to myself that even if I wasn't waving my hands in the air, I super duper did care.

I'm certainly not the first person to get hooked on her or his fitness tracker in a not-so-healthy way. Ominous reporting on "The Dark Side of Activity Trackers," has popped up everywhere from Redbook to the U.S. News & World Report. Even David Sedaris wrote a humor piece about getting hooked on his Fitbit for The New Yorker, and the next day everyone's Facebook feeds swelled with a chorus of, "OMG, THIS IS ME."

You're right: It is you. It's a lot of us. As humans, we're designed to enjoy incentives and rewards, and fitness trackers access that instinct incredibly well — sometimes too well. That doesn't make fitness trackers bad. They're great! They've shown millions of fitness newbies just how easy and accessible exercise really is. They provide a certain level of helpful data and an incentive to take the stairs instead of the elevator sometimes. But there is a dark side — and that particular feature comes with us, not the trackers.

When I had my mini-epiphany with my own tracker, I realized that, just as with food and exercise, there had to be a better, normal-person way to use this helpful tool. If you or someone you love has a problem with fitness trackers, here's the intervention you need.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com. If you just want to say "hi," that's cool, too.
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Photographed by Shirley Yu.
Step 1: Take it off.
Not forever, calm down. Take the damn thing off and leave it off for a good long while. I committed to a season without the fitness tracker, just to let myself recalibrate. Unlike quitting other things, quitting the tracker was an instant relief. Only faintly did I miss the little hit of instant gratification I got from checking my step count. I was surprised to find how calming it was to be without the added layer of stress. True, it wasn't as weighty as work stress or family stress, but that nagging little number wrapped around my wrist had been more cumbersome than I'd thought.

Taking a considerable break does two important things: puts your relationship to the fitness tracker into perspective, and reminds you that you're fine without it. You'll probably still exercise. You'll probably still walk places. Your legs probably won't atrophy the second you stop accounting for their every move. Take the tracker off for a month — minimum. If you're worried about it losing its magical novelty, it will. That's the point.
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Photographed by Shirley Yu.
Step 2. Establish boundaries.
Quick story: A couple years ago, I was on the treadmill and found myself fixated on the "calories" display in front of me. We all know that display is total bullshit, a fuzzy estimate at best, yet I couldn't look away. So, I whipped out my number one workout tool: a towel. I threw it over the entire display and got back to paying attention to what really mattered: the original Broadway cast recording of Ragtime, playing on my iPhone.

I realize I sound like a bit of a drama queen here, but yes, you need to establish some boundaries with your fitness tracker. Maybe you only check it at certain times of day. Maybe you stick a Post-It on your desk at work, saying something like, "It's just a bracelet!" But before you think about using it again, come up with some healthy limits to put between you and your gizmo.
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Photographed by Shirley Yu.
Step 3: Put it back on (if you want).
I wound up giving my old tracker to a friend and starting fresh with a new one. I like it because it looks more like a bracelet than a device, and therefore I'm not constantly aware of wearing a fitness tracker. The best part? I haven't figured out how to make the display show me numbers — and I'm not going to. I can only check my steps when I sync it up with my phone, limiting the amount of times a day I can look at it. (Boundaries!)

Maybe you'll get to the end of this break and realize that you're not into the tracker thing anymore. Maybe you'll realize you're too naturally prone to fixation to use the tracker appropriately, and quit all together. Maybe, like me, you just needed a reset and reality check. But no matter what…
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Photographed by Shirley Yu.
Non-Optional Bonus Step: Know thyself.
The truth is there is nothing inherently wrong with fitness trackers. And if you can't make them work for you, then there's nothing inherently wrong with you, either. We're all built differently, and if your particular operating system doesn't work with these tools, then you're not missing anything but a little data and a lot of unnecessary stress. In the end, you don't need a bracelet to walk 10,000 steps a day. You just need you.

And the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Ragtime.
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