- If you have a fitness goal in mind, there are endless apps out there designed to help you achieve it.
- However, sports psychologists Dr Andrew Wood and Dr Martin Turner believe fitness apps may be doing us more harm than good.
- They warn that such apps, and running-trackers in particular, contribute to developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise, whereby people feel they need to run in order to have value.
- What’s more, these apps encourage people to post about their workouts on social media, which Dr Turner told INSIDER is a “double-edged sword.”
Whether you want to track your macros, miles, or meditation, there are endless apps designed to help you reach your health, fitness, and wellness goals.
These apps help you measure your progress, they send you motivational messages, and allow you to share your workouts to social media, ensuring all your friends and family know just how far you’ve gone.
But according to some sports psychologists, fitness apps may be doing us more harm than good.
Dr Andrew Wood, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, and Dr Martin Turner, Associate Professor of Psychology, are both from Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, UK.
They believe that running apps in particular are causing people to develop unhealthy relationships with exercise, because they start to feel competitive with themselves, which can lead to a damaging mindset.
“The danger with this situation is that your self-worth is becoming attached to running,” Wood and Turner wrote in a piece published by The Conversation.
“Running is now part of who you are. If you don’t run, who are you? If you quit or reduce running, then all of those nice things you are experiencing will drop away. People value you and you value yourself because of your running.
“Now you have to carry on running to maintain your self-worth. It makes sense to you that the more you run, the better you feel, you have greater social standing and with it more self-worth.
“A belief forms: ‘I have to keep running or I’ll be a worthless nobody.'”
Wood explained to INSIDER that the mindset trap can occur with all forms of exercise, but is most commonly reported in endurance-based sports, though weight-lifting is a close second.
“Athletes irrationally start to believe that their self-worth is contingent on how they play or performance, and start to think ‘If I play well I am a complete success, if I play poorly then I am a complete failure,” he said.
He added that athletes and exercisers are typically at higher risk for this thinking “when training loads increase, training hours increase, and level of competition increases.”
“It just so happens endurance sports require a high level of demand and training load to perform and achieve their potential,” he said. “So, if an athlete thinks ‘I must achieve my goal as an endurance athlete, if not I am a failure and this would be terrible’ (irrational), they are more likely to feel compelled to train and increase their train load, competition, and duration.”
Wood explained that these beliefs come with “a heavy and unrelenting burden, coupled with unrealistic self expectations that they must achieve, otherwise they consider themselves a complete failure. In turn, they may compensate and over-train to avoid not feeling like a failure.”
The duo cite research which suggests that people whose identities are strongly linked to being an exerciser (including runners) are more likely to become dependent on exercise.
“In our work as sport and exercise psychologists, we often come across people who become overly consumed by an athletic identity and who form the idea that their success as an athlete reflects their worth as a human being,” Wood and Turner wrote.
“So, I succeed as an athlete, therefore I am valuable. I fail as an athlete, therefore I am worthless. So I have to succeed because my self-worth is on the line.”
- Luke Worthington
The academics believe runners are in a particularly precarious position as they can’t guarantee success, and when their self-worth depends on that, they’re more likely to have poor psychological well-being.
When you hold the belief that you have to run or else you hold no value, you’re likely to end up physically and emotionally drained, and this is ultimately harming rather than improving your health.
It also contributes to people’s motivation becoming based on guilt – that is, they run because they feel guilty if they don’t, rather than because they actually enjoy running.
Fitness apps may be contributing to runners’ motivation shifting this way because people feel the need to measure and track their endeavours, getting faster or running further every time.
Wood and Turner are advising people to remember that running is a choice.
“Not achieving a goal or missing a training session might feel bad, but it isn’t terrible,” they said.
“Also, your running achievement does not define you – you’re more than just a runner. Detach your self-worth from your actions.
“Being a good runner doesn’t make you a good person, just as being a bad runner doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Be it transformation photos or a map of your run, fitness apps often encourage people to share the results of their workouts on social media, but Turner believes posting about your exercising should be done with caution.
“Social media is a double-edged sword when it comes to fitness endeavours,” he explained. “It can increase motivation, but the problem is, motivation isn’t just a low to high thing. What matters more than your level (low or high) of motivation, is the type of motivation.
“If your motivation is defined by self-pressure and guilt (‘I have to exercise or else I’d be a useless person’), or by wanting to look good on social media (or avoid looking bad on social media), then this can be dangerous because your choice to exercise is being driven by uncontrollable forces, like what people think about you, or by how guilty you might feel if you don’t train.”
Turner points out that opening yourself up to evaluation on social media means putting yourself forward for acceptance or rejection.
“This mix of self-pressure, striving towards gaining approval or positive evaluation from other people, and the attachment of self-worth to exercising, is a potent mix that can be dangerous when things don’t go to plan,” he said.
“It can also drive exercisers to do too much, and sacrifice important life events and relationships.”
Instead of posting about your workout on Instagram or Facebook, Turner and Wood recommend keeping a personal diary to reflect on your achievements.
“Why do you need the external work to approve of your endeavours?” they ask.
“We also encourage people to detach their self-worth from the exercise pursuit. We try to get people to realise that they are normal human beings who succeed and fail, but cannot be defined by their success or failure.”