Fitness tracker risks

Explainers

Tracking Fitness Trackers, Tracking Risks

May 7th, 2020

Fitness trackers sounds like the perfect tools for living well: a lightweight devices that track of all your vital statistics plus the progress of your physical training. You no longer have to lug your phone along, estimate how far you’ve run, or press a finger on your neck or your wrist to check your pulse.

Many fitness trackers also now provide other features such as your historical data; comparing your performance against other registered owners; sending and receiving emails and texts; and even measuring the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Users can earn achievements, like a video game, for accomplishing certain tasks or distances. No wonder all of these products are selling well. At least a fifth of all Americans wear a fitness tracker or smart watch to monitor their exercise.

With Promise Comes Peril

One immediate concern: security. Most trackers are designed to sync with other hardware, such as a laptop or phone. When you run or bike, the device also keeps track of your geographic location. All of this data flying through the cloud is potentially hackable. Although most mainstream manufacturers of fitness trackers and other wearable tech include basic security protection, hackers are always hunting for new vulnerabilities. Beyond that, the actual device itself could be lost or stolen. Whoever ends up with it may have access to all the personal data it contains.

Also, all that information about your workout routines—and where you are when you perform them—is valuable. Be sure to read the user agreements that come with your device and the apps it uses. Understand how the company that makes your device handles the data it produces. Wherever possible, engage the most restrictive privacy settings possible.

Mental Health

Another concern is how using a fitness tracker might be threatening your mental health.

Lauren Mazzo, a columnist for Fitness magazine, described the experience of using a tracker as being “plugged in.” Because your device literally monitors every breath you take and every beat of your heart, it increases your awareness of these processes, including the role you have in adjusting them with your daily activities. Throw in the need to set and beat fitness goals (as most devices encourage) and it’s not hard for a general interest in improving your health to evolve into a harmful data obsession.

Users may lose sight of the big picture—good health—start to focus more on the tiny stuff of quantifying every aspect of their waking and even sleeping lives. Hitting daily numbers—or a certain number of steps or miles or heart rate—becomes more important than your health. Missing those markers and goals, then, can lead to stress, anxiety and compulsive disorders.

A tip from health experts: every now and then, leave your device at home when you head out for a run.

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