Exercise OCD: Is Tech Ruining Your Workout?

The average gymgoer is drowning in a sea of app-generated statistics and fitness-related feedback. Worse, this numbers crunch may be putting the squeeze on your exercise goals.

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Albert Einstein reputedly made the distinction "Information is not knowledge," and the Police presciently sang: "Too much information driving me insane." But the more we focus on fitness, the more we seem to have lost sight of that wisdom. "I worked with a 34-year-old attorney who wore a heart-rate-monitor watch and chest band, continuously logged into a step-counter app on his iPhone, and measured his waist before and after his workout," says Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D., a senior fitness consultant for the American Council on Exercise. The topper: He also wore his monitor in the conjugal bed, logging his heart rate pre- and post-sex.

We've developed an itchy addiction to being constantly in the biofeedback loop. Combine that with the urge we feel to measure up to the hard bodies of Hollywood and the number of wearable health and fitness devices—we bought nearly 21 million last year—and the result is an unhealthy fixation that some experts are comparing to obsessive-compulsive disorder. And our bodies are not always the better for it.

Technology's Power for Good

In simpler times, you could tell how hard you were exercising by how hard you were breathing, the great outdoors was the soundtrack, and your results were measured by your reflection in the mirror. Now we know the exact distances we run or bike, average mile pace, heart rate, wattage, and cadence. And that's just from a wristwatch. Add in the calorie counters, VO2 max calculators, Bluetooth-enabled BMI-measuring scales, smartphone apps, and results-sharing websites, and there's not an action or fluctuation that remains uncharted.

In some cases, it can help save exercisers from themselves. "Excitable beginners are much more likely to overtrain," says Adam St. Pierre of Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado. "With a heart-rate monitor, I can tell clients to stay at 130 to 140 beats per minute." And used properly, apps like Lose It! or Nike Training Club will improve your chances of losing weight, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh. Real-time feedback—like losing to a virtual nemesis on the workout bike—is also beneficial. A study from Michigan State University found that those who biked against a simulated competitor exercised twice as long as solo cyclists.

When It Goes Bad

Obsessions are defined by the degree and constancy of your fixation—wearing an all-day activity monitor that records steps and calories burned, like the BodyMedia FIT LINK, Nike+ FuelBand, or Fitbit Ultra, gives structure to people who need to be more active, but there's a subset who fanatically calculate the trade-offs they need to make for consuming 250 calories more than they did yesterday. "There's such a thing as too obsessed with technology, and we're starting to see that in many, many people," says Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and the author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold On Us. Rosen says you've developed the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder if you can't finish a run until you've burned exactly 500 calories or you push yourself to the point of injury to beat last week's results.

"Most people who are serious about fitness have gone through phases like this," says David Van Daff, vice president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine. "But it becomes way too much, and frankly, people like that don't tend to be too much fun." Plus, your results may suffer. Those calorie and step counters don't consider age, gender, weight, height, or, above all, level of fitness. Some experts say estimates can be as much as 25 to 30 percent over or under your actual calorie burn. Besides, numbers never tell the whole story. "So many other factors come into play when you go by stats," says Kevin Younger, the owner of Athletic Improvement Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. "Maybe you didn't sleep enough or you drank too much coffee, which may affect your heart rate."

5 Ways to Unplug

The question is how to find balance.

Reconsider Scales: Take the No. 1 object of exercise OCD: weight loss. Scales should be locked away for most of the month. No one sheds (or gains) weight like a Biggest Loser contestant, and safe weight loss means dropping one or two pounds a week, Van Daff says. Instead, go by how you look in your clothes and by your energy levels, which should increase as you become fitter.

Add Purpose to Smartphone Apps: "Use these counters, monitors, and fitness aids as tools with an actual purpose," Mantell says. "If the specific reason for counting steps is 'It's nice to know,' then you're becoming unnecessarily dependent." Rosen gives the same advice he does for any phone obsession: "Turn it to silent, put it away, and don't check it for 15 minutes. Knowing that you can check it again later trains your brain to dump anxiety."

Get External Stimulation: Your workout shouldn't die just because your battery does. "Elite athletes turn inward for their stimulation," Mantell says. "Amateur exercisers look for distraction from the outside, believing they 'need' music to get through the workout." Spend a session or two a week unplugged and focus on your breathing or posture. And to sharpen your competitive edge, add a human element. Consider a running or cycling club or find a spin class.

Reduce Data Sharing: "People who compulsively share data are adding stress around an activity that's supposed to help them become less stressed," Mantell says. Take a week off from uploading your workout results—you'll feel liberated.

Enjoy, Don't Obsess: Most of all, let the rush—not the results—be your reward. "The guys that are happiest are the ones that come in here, give us everything they've got, and leave," Younger says. "If they end up shy of what they completed last week, they don't obsess. They just work harder next time."

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