10 Ways Listening to Your Health Apps Can Backfire

10 Ways Listening to Your Health Apps Can Backfire
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We buy fitness trackers and install health-related apps because we want to be healthier, so it seems natural to chase whatever metrics the apps give us. But those metrics are there because they’re easy for an algorithm to measure and judge — not because we’ll be healthier if we try to max out every score every day. Here are a few ways your apps can steer you wrong.

Rushing your warmups

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Every app or gadget that can track runs is able to tell us the distance we ran and the amount of time we ran. From those two numbers, the little chips in our phones can’t help but calculate our pace. “I’m running twelve-minute miles?!” you might say as you check your watch. “Well, next time I’ll have to run faster.”

Many running workouts should really start with a slower warmup, one where you’re jogging slowly or working your way up from a brisk walk. The real workout starts when the warmup begins. But if you’re logging the whole thing, that leisurely warmup brings down your overall pace. And you’ll also have a hard time running appropriately slowly on your easy runs if you see that total time as a personal judgment.

What to do instead: Either mark your warmup (and any active rest between intervals) as a separate lap or segment…or just ignore your total pace.

Sleeping in too late

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Sleep trackers can help us figure out whether we’re getting enough sleep and how we can get more. But they’re so focused on grading each night of sleep that we often find ourselves asking, “How can I get a better sleep score tonight?” rather than, “How can I get better sleep, in general?”

Let’s say you’d ideally like to wake up at 6 a.m. If you’ve stayed up until midnight, the best way to maximise your sleep score is to skip your morning workout and see if you can sleep in until 8. But if your goal is to sleep better in general, it would make more sense to leave your alarm set for 6 a.m. no matter how late you stay up. Tomorrow, you’ll be even more tired in the evening, and pretty soon you’ll get back on track.

What to do instead: Focus on building the habits that make for good sleep (like a dark bedroom and a consistent routine) rather than seeing each night as a separate test to pass.

Skipping workouts when your scores are low

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The apps and gadgets that give you a “readiness” or “recovery” score often say they do this so you can make informed choices about how hard you’d like to go in your workouts. But any good coach will tell you you’ll have a tough time making progress if you’re afraid of fatigue. When you follow a well-designed program, you will have days, sometimes entire weeks, when you’re training hard and feeling a little beat up.

Sleep trackers can help to make sure that you’re recovering as well as you can given your training stresses, but if you were to take a rest day every time you got a low recovery score, you’d miss out on a lot of good training. Your body is resilient enough to put up with the stress of training, I promise.

What to do instead: Get a good program (or trainer or coach) and trust the process. Compare your scores to what you would expect given your training. Low score after a tough week? That’s normal. High score after a tough week? Maybe your program isn’t challenging you enough. Low score after an easy week? Now you might start questioning whether you’ve been training too hard.

Avoiding workouts that don’t give you “steps”

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Gadgets that track steps (which now includes every phone) are great for encouraging us to get more activity during the day. Every shopping trip or dog walk gets you a few steps closer to your goal — although, please remember, 10,000 steps is an arbitrary number and you can set your goal to something else.

The danger here is that you’ll start to think of workouts and activities in terms of what will give you the most steps. Trying to decide between a spin class or a hike? A jog or a strength training session? It’s easy to get into a mindset where steps are a tiebreaker.

What to do instead: Consider what your body needs and wants, not just how high you can push that step count number.

Missing out on the best parts of strength training

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Strength training is good for us, in so many ways. It helps us to avoid minor injuries, to have an easier time with everyday tasks, to have a good quality of life as we get older, and to keep a healthy body composition as we gain or lose weight. Its job is not to keep our heart rate up for a certain number of minutes. You’re thinking of cardio.

But if you use a gadget to track your strength training, it’s tempting to try to keep your heart rate up the same way you would in a cardio workout. This means you’ll take shorter rest breaks between exercises, which in turn means you won’t be able to lift as heavy. Ultimately, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the benefits of strength training because you were chasing the wrong goal.

What to do instead: Either don’t track your strength training sessions with a gadget that measures heart rate, or use the data just to note that you did the workout and how long it took. Take some rests between your exercises and find out how strong you really are!

Assuming your watch knows how many calories you’ve burned

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One of the selling points of fitness trackers is the idea that they know how many calories you’re really burning when you do an exercise, or even when you go about your day. Unfortunately, calorie burn isn’t that predictable, and your watch is just making a wild-arse guess.

What to do instead: If you’re trying to figure out how much to eat, track how much you eat and see if the scale goes up or down. Adjust accordingly. If your watch thinks you’re burning 2,500 calories a day, but your weight stays constant on 2,300, then you’re burning 2,300.

Worrying about your sleep quality

Sleep trackers are pretty good at telling how much time we spend in bed, but they’re terrible at judging when one sleep stage ends and the next one begins. I’ll never forget the first week I wore both an Oura ring and a Whoop band, and the Oura was telling me I didn’t get enough REM sleep and the Whoop told me I was getting too much.

What to do instead: Take the scores from your sleep app with a grain of salt. Reading too much into your sleep quality can create a nocebo effect where you feel tired because you expect to feel tired. Pay attention to the total amount and consistency of your sleep instead.

Setting yourself up for failure with a streak

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Longtime Lifehacker readers know this is a pet peeve of mine: the app that thinks it’s nudging you into healthy habits, only to reward you with a streak that you will inevitably break and feel terrible about.

Streaks end. Every streak ends. Do you really want to be one of those people who sets reminders to track a meditation “workout” every day on vacation so they won’t lose a streak? It’s just not worth it. Or if it is, admit to yourself that you’re playing a game with your app; this isn’t a health-promoting habit.

What to do instead: Honestly? Break the streak. Do a workout without tracking it, on purpose, to free yourself. Take a weekly rest day. You probably need it, anyway.

Worrying too much about your calories

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Strict diets can be a gateway into disordered eating for some people, and tracking calories can sometimes have that effect, as well. If you’re able to track your calories and stay mentally healthy, that’s great. But that doesn’t mean you have to obsess over your calories.

For example, you may start to feel a sticker shock about any large meal. There’s nothing wrong with eating an 800-calorie lunch if it’s made of foods that fit into your diet in a healthy way (plenty of protein and vegetables, for example). But if you’re afraid of logging a too-big number, you might decide to only eat half that meal, and then find yourself hungry and digging in the snack cabinet later. Or to take another example, you might avoid logging certain snacks or condiments for fear of adding to the Big Number; but if you were to log more honestly, you would see that your body is actually able to handle more calories than you thought it could.

What to do instead: Accept that eating food is part of how you fuel yourself. And if you’re sure you want to track calories, use an app like Cronometer that is less visually judgmental about them.

Chasing a “good” number on pretty much anything

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What’s a good HRV reading? What’s a good resting heart rate? What’s a good VO2max? What’s a good running pace?

I won’t call these “meaningless” numbers, because they do have some utility. But they’re not scores on which you should judge yourself as a person in the universe. Each number means something in context, and doesn’t mean much outside of that context.

For example, if you currently run a 10-minute-per-mile pace, it doesn’t matter whether that’s “good.” You can train to run faster, should you choose. Or to take HRV, which stands for heart rate variability? That’s a number that can be useful to tell you whether you’ve been under a lot of stress from training or life; it’s not the kind of thing you can meaningfully compare to others.

What to do instead: Ask yourself what really matters. A number on your screen doesn’t mean anything in real life, but maybe you’re improving something about your heart health or your ability to run races. Focus on those ultimate outcomes, not on your daily score.

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