Why Fitness Apps May Be Sabotaging Your Mental Health

Photo: Guillaume Bolduc on Unsplash
Why Fitness & Weight Loss Apps Put Women With Low Self-Esteem & Eating Disorders At Risk

Not too long ago, a notification popped up on my phone from my fitness app, as it had each day for the past several years.

"Just a reminder to step on the scale and update your current weight today," it chimed, taking over my screen.

"Eff you!" was all I could think in response, closing the window fast.

That’s when I knew that my time using "fitness apps" was over.

Doing so had proven to come with more risks for my body image, weight management and overall mental health than could be balanced by any perceivable benefits.

I had been using an app called MyFitnessPal for eight years, and with that last notification, I'd had it.

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The app works like many other diet and fitness apps marketed to people trying to find ways to lose weight — by allowing you to track your food/calorie intake, exercise routine, and weight gain or loss (among other things) on your smartphone.

Most of the time, when the push notifications popped up, I didn't want to see them.

Maybe that's because I had just finished half of a pizza (and I’m not talking about the cauliflower crust kind).

At other times, I felt a searing twinge of shame simply from the arrival of a notification, knowing I had “failed” at tracking every morsel I ate.

And often, the shame I felt was even bigger.

The fitness app notifications pinged at my subconscious awareness that even when/if I do hit my "goal weight", doing so will never make me feel like I’m enough.

In short, it felt like MyFitnessPal was making my body image issues even worse.

Of course, weight loss and fitness apps are big business.

MyFitnessPal, whose parent company, Under Armour, was sent reeling by a data breach affecting approximately 150 millions users in March of 2018, is by far the most popular diet app among my friends, but it is by no means the only dieting or fitness app game in town.

Noom, whose Twitter profile promises that their "scalable coaching platform combines the brilliance of artificial intelligence with the power of human support to achieve lasting behavior change," seems to be all over my social media feeds right now.

This paid app gives users personalized calorie content and access to coaches, among other things. And their onslaught of recent advertising and promotion appears to be working, as they claim their "direct-to-consumer weight loss and exercise tracking mobile applications have reached more than 47 million users worldwide."

Another leader in the dieting app marketplace is the WW app from the company formerly known as Weight Watchers.

This app is likely to have a lot of staying power, building upon their previous success with in-person meetings and support. As Mindy Grossman, President and Chief Executive Officer of WW, told Yahoo Finance "We aim to be the world's everything app for wellness ... All of our members, which at the close of the first quarter was approximately 4.6 million people, have access to this incredible, Webby Award-winning app."

Perhaps the most important factor the people at Weight Watchers Reimagined are relying upon is a contract with Oprah Winfrey, who serves not only as a spokesperson but is also an active WW member and WW board member.

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Other top apps currently under the “Healthy Eating” and "Weight Loss" sections of Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store include Lose It! Calorie Counter, Fooducate Nutrition Tracker, and 8fit Workouts and Meal Planner.

Each offers different services, from straight-up calorie tracking to grocery shopping guides for foods that claim to help users lose weight.

It's hard or even impossible to know whether one app works better than any other, and one 2014 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that, "Smartphone apps for weight loss may be useful for persons who are ready to self-monitor calories, but introducing a smartphone app is unlikely to produce substantial weight change for most patients."

But a lot of people seem to love them anyway.

Dieting apps aren’t the only way technology has jumped on the fat shaming bandwagon.

While the sale of simple, wearable fitness trackers like Fitbits are on the decline, sales of smartwatches, like the Apple Watch or Google Wear OS are on the rise — and they are always there to remind you to move or complete 10,000 steps.

Clearly, I’m not the only one trying to use technology to lose weight and control my exercise.

In addition to helping you log your calories and exercise, MyFitnessPal also posts articles on their blog, such as roundups of quotes and tips from users who lost 100 or more pounds.

These are the types of stories I used to cling to.

Maybe I would feel proud of myself if I joined the ranks of those sharing their success stories and went from Flabby Mom to a Bada$$ Mom, dominating an Ironman while pumping breast milk in the break room.

Unfortunately, for me, that wasn’t the case — and that only made me feel worse.

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One thing that attracts users of fitness and weight loss apps, like myself, is that your diet and exercise histories are stored as long as you have the account.

Looking back at my history on MyFitnessPal, I can see that I first joined in July of 2011 — just a month after I was married.

In retrospect, I can see that I probably subconsciously wanted to stay at my wedding weight to feel worthy of love (gulp!).

And to some degree, MyFitnessPal did work to help me lose weight.

I can see where my weight dipped during times when I was dieting (or sometimes fasting or nearly starving myself) or doing regular boot camp classes.

I can also see where my weight soared during pregnancy.

During that time, I hid behind food as a hopeful “cure” for my morning sickness and depression, consuming everything in sight. I can track my 70-plus pound weight gain throughout the pregnancy, and then the loss of that “baby weight” over four months on a neat line graph thanks to the app and my diligent (though it would be fair to also call it "obsessive") weight logging.

I can also use my history on MyFitnessPal to track my journey at the time I found myself becoming a divorced mom.

I see that I logged in to track my food intake and get in shape in order to “get back out there” on the dating scene like everyone told me to. It never occurred to me to not listen to their advice and wait to date when I felt ready. I should have worked on accepting and loving myself as-is, without any dieting, before I jumped back into the dating world.

I understand now that this process was unhealthy, and possibly even disordered.

One thing is for certain — I wasn't logging into MyFitnessPal to track my food because I loved myself.

If I'm being honest, it was because I was, at least subconsciously, deeply unhappy and thought that losing a few pounds (or more) would help. Maybe I’d feel good enough if I had a six pack for the first time? Or if I achieved the perfect thigh gap?

My history on MyFitnessPal holds much more than a digital record of my weight gains and losses.

Each spike and dip tells a story of how I was feeling at the time. And, looking back now, I see a sad story repeating itself over and over.

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In the end, using the MyFitnessPal app perpetuated my negative body image and overall negative sense of myself as a person.

When I didn’t weigh in, I felt guilty. I was stressed by constantly tracking the food.

As hard as fitness apps try to make logging your food easy, it can be challenging when you're eating food at home.

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When you eat something prepackaged with a label, you can just input that or find it in their list of foods.

But it's a lot more time consuming when making a salad, where you have to measure and weigh each ingredient in order to be accurate. That can make healthy eating even harder.

I'm not the only one that feels like fitness apps can do more harm than good for some people.

On her wellness and mindset coaching blog Actually Alexandra, 22-year old Alexandra "Allie" Dawson describes her own negative relationship with counting macros and obsessively logging her food on MyFitnessPal.

"After plugging in my info and calculating my numbers, I became obsessed. I was already underweight, but still set my goal as weight loss. I learned how many calories I should be eating to reach that goal and used MyFitnessPal to make sure that I stayed far under that number."

Like Alexandra, I too have struggled with disordered eating.

In addition to obsessively tracking calories, I found the forums and support of a digital community only fueled my disordered eating.

Alexandra believes that her experience with MyFitnessPal was akin to a toxic relationship, and she eventually deleted the app altogether. She was done being controlled by obsessing, weighing, and logging everything she ate.

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At the end of the day, I don’t really think these apps are all bad. They are just bad for some people — people like me, or like Alexandra, who have struggled with self-esteem, body image, and/or disordered eating issues.

I am certain that awareness is power and recording what you put in your body may be very powerful to someone learning about healthy eating for the first time. I hear that in other people's success stories and I feel happy for those who found a healthier, more active lifestyle due to these apps.

But while there isn't a good source for data on this, I'd bet there's a nearly-equal number of folks out there who are struggling with body image or disordered eating and look to weight loss and fitness apps for help finding their self-worth, like I was.

For me, the solution to finding my own sense of self and healing my body image issues started with breaking up with my weight loss app, but it also included shifting my focus to movement I actually enjoy.

I won’t spend hours running anymore just because it burns a lot of calories. Now I focus on walking, hiking, and yoga because they bring me joy.

In addition, I've logged hours in the therapist's chair, which has helped me confront the underlying reasons I did not feel like enough.

At the end of the day, it is tough to be happy with your body when there is always a product or video or magazine showing you that what you’re doing to be healthy isn’t good enough.

I am happier now, accepting that not every day is going to be a 10,000 step day. Sometimes I need to prioritize my mental health and have popcorn and movie days, and that’s okay.

I also try to eat to fuel my body and focus on making healthier choices.

And with that being said, I won’t skip cake at a birthday party.

If you feel that fitness apps aren’t right for you either, it’s okay to break up with them!

If tracking is impacting your mental health, then it is an act of self-care to delete the app and unsubscribe from the emails.

Or, at the very least, disable those push notifications.

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Angela Carrington is a writer from Upstate New York with a passion for mental health and social justice. She’s a mom of one, lover of learning, and daily meditator. Find her on her website or on Instagram for more.

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