Is the “nocebo Effect” Hurting Your Fitness Goals?

Many of us have no problem checking the status of our New Year’s resolutions to “walk more” or “sleep better,” all thanks to our trusty Fitbits, Apple Watch, and other wrist-sized fitness gadgets. At any time of the day, you can look at your wrist and access your health data. And if you don’t have the instinct to check, chances are your smartwatch will – ding! – send you notification after notification to remind you. When it comes to your physical health, these gadgets are useful for getting a snapshot of your daily activity levels, sleep habits, and more, but at what cost to your mental well-being?

You know the power of the placebo effect : simply believing that you feel better can actually lead to physical improvements. Your mind can be a powerful healing tool. On the other hand, your mind can also be a powerful force for incessant worry. If you feel like your fitness gadget is doing more harm than good to your mental state, here’s how to deal with the “nocebo effect” caused by a device strapped to your wrist.

What is the nocebo effect?

While placebo is Latin for “I will please,” nocebo is Latin for “I will harm.” Research on the nocebo effect has shown many ways in which the expectation of side effects leads to experiencing them. In particular, the nocebo effect is commonly used in clinical settings to describe the phenomenon where patients report feeling pain due to the expectation of painful side effects. Earlier this month, Tim Kalpan argued in Bloomberg that the nocebo effect helps explain what happens when we keep looking at our wrists and expecting to see failures, flaws, and red flags.

Constant tracking leads to anxiety

Call it the nocebo effect, ” Fitbit anxiety ” or some other term to describe the mental stress of 24/7 fitness tracking. As Kalpan says, “We want to believe that technology can alert us to dangers and risks. We’ve come to rely on devices on our wrists to keep us updated on our physical and mental health.”

It all comes down to the fact that the notifications “ Move! ” often leads to feelings of expectation or obligation, which can cause very real anxiety. Consider taking 10,000 steps a day: That’s a completely arbitrary goal , but even if you’re taking a perfectly healthy number of steps a day, you feel bad when you see that you haven’t been able to reach your Fitbit’s high goal.

Aside from feelings of perfectionism, research suggests there are potentially dangerous consequences for patients who rely on smartwatches to assess their health. A 2019 study on how patients with heart disease perceive self-tracking activity data found that, in general, “self-measurements are more problematic than helpful.” In the study, patients received no help in interpreting their watch data, in the same way that the average Fitbit or Apple Watch user doesn’t consult their doctor on a daily basis. In the Journal of Internet Medical Research, Tarik Osman Andersen , one of the study’s authors, notes that when patients were (literally) left to their own devices, their interpretations caused them “unnecessary anxiety” or led them to conclude that they were “far from reality.” . For example, if they saw that they were not sleeping as much as they should, they became uncomfortable and feared that the data showed that they were exacerbating their illnesses.

Not surprisingly, the study cited above found that when patients did not take the recommended 10,000 steps a day, many reported feelings of guilt, even though their doctors told them that the number, again, was completely arbitrary .

Did you close the rings today?

It’s important to remember that the apps linked to your watch are designed as consumer devices, not medical devices. As Victoria Song notes in The Verge , “Modern wearables are mostly focused on creating and maintaining series.” This kind of gamification is a pretty effective tool to get you hooked on their product, but it’s no substitute for talking to your doctor.

This does not mean that your fitness device is bad. I’ll say this: I love my Apple Watch. Honestly. Of course, I know firsthand how exciting, discouraging and alarming daily data can be. But I also know some remedies to prevent the nocebo effect from taking root.

How to deal with fitness tracker anxiety

You don’t have to throw away your gadgets just yet. Many fitness apps and gadgets have become aware of the possible negative effects on the psyche. For example, Fitbit has moved away from the arbitrary goal of 10,000 steps towards a broader metric called Active Zone Minutes (AZM) , which focuses on weekly activity levels rather than daily streaks.

Ironically or not, Fitbit has the ability to track your stress levels . Be careful if the sight of a high level of stress makes you stressed, which you register, which makes you even more stressed, so you register a high level of stress again, which makes you even more stressed – you get the picture.

Otherwise, turning off notifications and a setting that lights up on the screen every time you flip your wrist may be the right move for you. This way you have more control over when you really want to access the data on your wrist.

You can also set the clock removal time according to your goals; for example, making sure that drinking with friends won’t be interrupted by your watch telling you that you need to take another 500 steps today.

bottom line

Understandably, the purpose of fitness trackers to help you achieve your goals can be overwhelmed by the negative feedback that is less than ideal. We know the power of your mind when it comes to physical health, so try to use that power for good.

If you decide to wear a fitness gadget, it should make you feel proud of the work you’ve done, not disappointed by perceived failures. Don’t sacrifice your mental health for 10,000 steps.


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