Your FitBit Might Mess with Your Mental Health

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COVID-19 may be keeping us away from the gym, but that doesn't mean we're not still trying to get exercise. At-home routines have become part of daily life for many, and a not-insignificant portion of that could relate to your daily step count. Wearable health trackers like FitBit are widely used and can be helpful, but one new study shows that they also have the potential to backfire.

Danish researchers at the University of Copenhagen have just published a paper measuring something FitBits don't track: user anxiety. The study was small, only 27 heart patients, but it sought to uncover what learning all this personal data did for participants' mental health. While the device did teach these patients about their bodies and encourage more exercise, the researchers also found that participants became more anxious. One of the paper's authors even went so far as to say that "overall, self-measurements are more problematic than beneficial when it comes to the patient experience."

Ultimately, the reason is the same as what makes at-home genetic testing so variable: Casual users can't interpret their FitBit's data the way a medical professional can, which can lead to incorrect conclusions and even unhelpful behavioral changes. Previous studies have found that wearable health trackers' benefits are mostly motivational, thanks to inconsistencies between brands and products. Using commercially available devices even comes with some privacy concerns, medical ethicists report.

If you're looking at your wrist pedometer or smart watch a little differently now, you don't necessarily have to toss it. Just know what you can get from it, talk to your doctor, and adjust your expectations accordingly.