Fitness apps can be bad for your mental health



SLAVE TO THE STEPS: Achieving that magic 10,000 a day can take over your life (Image: Getty Images)

ANYONE dropping in from another planet would be appalled by the stresses we on Earth put ourselves under. And we often do so voluntarily, as if determined to inflict some form of overdue self-punishment. We all know for example that occasionally we need to let things go – and yet we allow something as basic as our mobile phone to hold us in a tyrannical grip, as we check every few minutes to see if someone has sent a text, WhatsApp message or email. 

They haven’t? Panic! They have? Panic – because we need to respond. Now!

Moderation, it seems, is beyond us. This is increasingly evident when it comes to health and fitness, specifically the control that apps and Fitbits have over us – a control that often leads to obsessive behaviour on the one hand, guilt and falling self-esteem on the other.

There are thought to be more than 165,000 health-related apps on the market worldwide, helping (or not helping) with everything from brushing our teeth or applying make-up more effectively to achieving better orgasms.

But none are more popular than those which monitor the amount of exercise we are taking. In fact, more and more people wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their fitness trackers, checking constantly to discover how close they are to their goal.


Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is caught jogging in London (Image: TAL COHEN/AFP/GettyImages)

Which might sound harmless enough. But that’s not the view of some sports psychologists who now believe that fitness apps can be bad for your health.

Indeed, a growing number of people are overindulging in exercise at levels just shy of addiction, driven in part by the reliance on fitness-tracking devices on their watches and smartphones.

When I up running was both I joined Club and entered I was myself to time. That the borough and back of 12 miles if I did not it felt wrong.

Professor Martin Turner and Dr Andrew Wood, who are both attached to Staffordshire University, don’t deny that running can be beneficial both physically and mentally but they warn about the dangers of becoming “exercise dependent”.

On one Angeles After I had an Rather “You start running because you want to get fit and be a healthy weight,” they write on The Conversation website. “After a month you notice that your clothes fit better. Then colleagues and friends comment on how healthy you look… but it’s not enough.

girl running

Sports psychologists who now believe that fitness apps can be bad for your health (Image: Getty Images)

“Five kilometres no longer gives you the same rush so you move to 10. This added time means you no longer have time for a lunch break where you normally chat with colleagues. But who cares? People are saying you look great.” And so it goes on until “your self-worth is becoming attached to running”, claim the two psychologists.

“Running is now part of who you are. If you don’t run who are you? People value you and you value yourself because of your running. Now you have to carry on running in order to maintain your self-worth.”

This strikes a chord with me. As I describe elsewhere on this page, I became addicted to running when I was in my 40s nearly 20 years ago – and that was without the added pressure of a fitness app or Fitbit.

More recently, a friend came to stay for a month while in the throes of buying a house. He was obsessed with reaching his daily target of steps. I assumed he, like many others, needed to do 10,000 – the magic number that seems to have spawned a whole industry.


People can become obsessed to reach their daily targets (Image: Getty Images)

In fact, he was hooked on achieving 30,000 steps a day, which explained why he would leave the house shortly before 6am to walk to work on the other side of town. On one occasion he came home, checked his app and then went off again for another 45 minutes because he had not achieved his daily goal.

I told him he should ease up and, to coin a phrase, “take back control” but he was having none of it. Then, a few weeks later, he twisted his ankle and was unable to walk at all. The poor fellow was an emotional wreck.

So where did the 10,000 steps a day diktat come from, the one that the World Health Organisation, the American Heart Foundation, the US Department of Health and Human Services and our own NHS have all signed up to?

And why did Jeremy Hunt, when he was Health Secretary, think it a good idea to have a Fitbit poking out from his shirtsleeves?

The answer is disturbing, because the 10,000-steps figure is completely arbitrary. It originates from a Japanese marketing campaign on the back of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

“There wasn’t really any evidence for it at the time,” says Dr David Bassett, the head of kinesiology, recreation and sports studies at the University of Tennessee.

“They just felt that was indicative of an active lifestyle and should be healthy.”

And they might have been right. But such a prescriptive figure does not take into account an individual’s personality or physical disposition.Those 10,000 steps might be a positive challenge to one person, a burden for another.


There are more than 165,000 health-related apps on the market worldwide (Image: Getty Images)

James Cracknell, the double Olympic gold medal-winning rower, clearly is the sort of person for whom 10,000 steps – or the equivalent in rowing terms – means nothing.

He is hooked on “being in the adrenaline again” and that’s one reason he is about to become the oldest man ever to participate in the Boat Race, when he represents Cambridge University on April 7.

Most top sportsmen are obsessive about what they do. But the rest of us should heed the advice of Dr Wood: that while apps and health devices are not “designed to get people addicted” they are “designed explicitly to get people engaged with them and tap into people’s basic social psychological need to feel competent about what they are doing”.

Jeremy Hunt It’s a thin line between being motivated and dependent.And exercise is meant to be liberating rather than incarcerating. We should trust our own judgment more and listen to our bodies rather than relying on an app to tell us we should step up or reduce our exercise regime.


James Cracknell, double Olympic gold medal-winning rower (Image: Julian Finney/Getty Images)


WHEN I was living in New York, I took up running to cope with a city that was both oppressive and exhilarating.

I joined the New York Road Runners Club and within a few months had entered the New York Marathon.

I was then in competition with myself to produce the best possible time.

That meant running to work from the borough of Queens to Manhattan and back again in the evening – a total of 12 miles a day.

I was so hooked that if I did not get my daily adrenaline fix, it felt wrong.

On one occasion, I flew to Los Angeles via Chicago for a holiday.

After changing planes in Chicago I had an hour’s wait for my connection.

Rather than having a cup of coffee or reading a book I put on my trainers and ran around the terminal.


It seems that moderation is beyond us (Image: Getty Images)

Running became my drug of choice.

Returning to the UK, I ran most mornings before work and before breakfast at weekends.

Running had control of me rather than my having control of running. Then, one Sunday morning I got up early, went outside and started pounding the streets.

It was cold and wet. After 400 yards I stopped. “I am no longer enjoying this,” I told myself.

“I would rather be in bed with a cup of tea and the Sunday paper.”

I walked home, leaving my addiction on the pavement.

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