Cutting Down on Food and Fitness Tracking

Cutting Down on Food and Fitness Tracking
Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

Have you been tracking your food via a calorie-counting app?

Maybe you’ve been tracking your exercise through a wearable or other system. Did you know such tracking:

  • May encourage a disordered relationship with food and your body?
  • May actually be jeopardizing your health rather than helping you to monitor it?

If you’ve noticed that you’re becoming obsessive about what you eat or how you move your body, it might be a good idea to examine your relationship with any tracking devices you are using.

People may track their weights, food consumed, and workouts in the name of health. But for many people, tracking such data can actually be detrimental. Preliminary research shows that the use of MyFitnessPal can contribute to eating disorder symptoms in undergraduates (Simpson & Mazzeo, 2017), adults with eating disorders (Levinson et al., 2017) and men (Linardon and Messer, 2019).

The research is not clear about exactly why these devices can be so detrimental. In my experience working with patients with eating disorders who track, tracking cuts people off from their bodies and their own regulatory systems. People who track become reliant on objective measures and data for making decisions about how much to eat and how hard to exercise. They lose awareness of their own bodies’ signals. Perfectionistic traits may drive them to eat fewer calories, take more steps, and increase their distance or pace during a workout. Even those who don’t struggle with a diagnosable eating disorder can be negatively impacted by these tracking devices and apps, with individuals who previously had a perfectly normal relationship with food suddenly feeling completely consumed with thoughts about what they’re putting into their mouths.

This was brought home to me when working with a patient who was obsessively tracking his workout metrics. As we discussed doing a bike ride without his fitness monitor–just as an experiment to see how it felt—he argued passionately with me, with one telling objection being, “How will I know when to take a drink?” He had been timing his consumption of water according to time and distance.

I asked him the same question back:  “How will you know when to take a drink?” Hearing it from a third party, he realized how strange the question sounded and how disconnected he had become from his own body.

Similarly, patients who count calories and carefully dole out lunches of specific caloric allotments become frightened when faced with a lunch of unknown (and likely higher) caloric value. Knowing that restaurant portions are larger and more calorically dense then the meals they make at home, they ask me how they can possibly avoid overeating. And then they are amazed when they find that they are sometimes satisfied with less than the entire portion of the restaurant meal, precisely because it’s more calorically dense and satiating.

Once they are no longer eating according to self-imposed strictures, eating becomes a different experience. They gain the capacity to tune in to how they feel while eating the food, rather than just eating to completion of their allotment–and they find that their bodies tell them when to stop eating. Life without tracking can become a freeing and enjoyable experience in which you can be fully present during meals and exercise and engage with the people around you and your surroundings—having deep conversations without intrusive thoughts and becoming mesmerized by beautiful surroundings when you exercise outdoors, for example.

Our bodies are wonderful, self-regulating mechanisms. Our bodies tell us when we need to urinate or have a drink of water or when it’s time to eat and when it’s time to stop eating. When we succumb to diet or wellness culture and stop trusting our bodies and start relying on external systems to tell us when to drink or how much to eat, we become disconnected from our bodies and we lose the ability to recognize these signals.

How to Stop Tracking

If you find that you are obsessively tracking your food or workouts, I invite you to try the following experiment:

  • Fitness tracking: do one workout without your monitor. During and after your workout, rather than looking at your metrics to evaluate the workout, ask yourself instead how your body feels/felt during the movement and afterward.
  • Food tracking: eat a meal where you do not know the caloric content. Tune in to how you feel while eating it. How does it taste?

Sources

Levinson, C. A., Fewell, L., & Brosof, L. C. (2017). My Fitness Pal calorie tracker usage in the eating disorders. Eating Behaviors, 27, 14-16.

Linardon, J., & Messer, M. (2019). My fitness pal usage in men: Associations with eating disorder symptoms and psychosocial impairment. Eating Behaviors33, 13–17.

Simpson, C. C., & Mazzeo, S. E. (2017). Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology. Eating Behaviors, 26, 89-92.

 

A Better Resolution For Exercise

joyful movement
Representation Matters

by Kristen Wright, LMFT

Did you make a New Year’s Resolution to start a new fitness routine? Those “thirty days of push-ups or sit-ups” or “do 15 of this and 12 of that a day to your ideal body in no time,” might sound appealing. But you may have already discovered it’s just another commitment that has left you feeling depleted and disheartened. What if this didn’t have to be a failure but the start of a new experience?

No, you are not lazy, inadequate, or hopeless. There! I said it and I firmly believe it. It is very easy to slip into a cycle of unhelpful thoughts. If you were talking to your friend that way, would your friend listen to you? Of course not! Saying “Get off that couch, you lazy cow” is no way to get it done. I used to think beating myself up would help me work out, and I had no excuse for not exercising. I now know that is not the solution.

Here are some strategies that may be helpful.

Rethink Exercise as Simply Movement

Exercise is often viewed as something unpleasant or punishing or even penance for eating. It shouldn’t be! Movement is much broader. It may be a dance class, a walk on the beach with your partner, a hike with a friend, or shooting hoops with your child. It could be jumping around to good music or playing on the ground with our pets or kids. It might even be just walking back and forth or stretching. Workouts come in many forms and all movement counts. Movement should be fun and have some freedom.

We need to reject the idea that a workout has to be 30 minutes to an hour, requires sweat, requires a shower, and must involve so many sets of different things. What if movement didn’t have to be so structured? If you are still trying to understand why workouts are difficult, it may be because in the past you only exercised when you also dieted. I find that many people with a history of repeated dieting have a very negative association to working out. Reframing it as movement helps with removing that association.

Welcome Those Rest Days

Balance is important. Sometimes rest is more important than exercise. Learn to listen to your body and all its needs. You may have had a bad day at work or you may be dehydrated. Everyone needs days off. When taking care of bodies, we have to take care of our mental health. And sometimes the workouts won’t happen. But instead of thinking of “I missed a day, and everything is ruined,” think instead, “Today I took care of my body by resting.”

Stop the Inner Critic

Become aware of your negative thoughts: “I can’t do this; I am lazy; I am a failure. I am too out of shape.” All of these jumbled thoughts weigh us down. We just can’t expect to operate under these conditions. You should talk to your body as you would talk to a friend. And when you do start being kinder to your body, pay attention to the peace and freedom that will follow. Remember: don’t push yourself to the point of negative self-talk. If the negative inner critic pops up, it is time to evaluate the workout and listen to your body.

Challenge Your Perfectionism

Not all workouts will be better than or even equivalent to the last. Watch and challenge that urge to make each bout of exercise more intense or more successful than the previous one. Try to remove performance measures from your exercise. You do not need metrics to measure the success of your movement. Try focusing instead on how your body feels. As well, after having a great week of workouts you might find that the next workout is barely anything. Don’t despair. Your body might be reacting to fatigue, stress, or just screaming for a break. Remember movement is still movement.

Recognize You are not Obligated to Move

In the words of Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN: “Health isn’t a moral obligation, and you don’t owe *anyone* the pursuit of health. Too much of the wellness world is caught up in healthism, and equating our worth to how much we pursue health goals. But the truth is that your value as a person and as a member of society doesn’t lie in whether or not you value your health.” Now how can this apply to you? Your worth as a person does not correlate to your fitness achievements. You are not a moral failure if you don’t exercise. You are not required to exercise!

In Conclusion

You are the only one who can know what your body needs. Different bodies appreciate different activities. Just because your favorite fitness guru on Instagram says that “this” or “that” will get you in shape, does not mean it is something you must do. You are the leader and guru of your own body. So, let your body tell you what it enjoys. Find the movement that makes your body say “Ahah! That felt good, let’s do this again.” It took me many different workout classes and videotapes to find out what I liked. I had to invest and become the explorer and expert of my own body. Be your body’s best friend and explore what your body likes to do. Please don’t give up on a movement style your body enjoys because it doesn’t look like it is making a difference. Rather spend time enjoying how the movement makes you feel. Do you feel better afterward?

AT EDTLA we can help you improve your relationship with food and exercise.

Free fitness Hollywood/miracle mile area

I commonly see patients in my psychology practice for depression, anxiety, and other emotional complaints. When I’m taking someone’s history, there’s one question I always ask which may surprise you:
“Tell me how often you exercise.”

The benefits of exercise are enormous and well documented: exercise invigorates, improves mood, reduces anxiety and stress, boosts self-esteem, and improves focus and concentration.

Many of my clients who are new to Los Angeles struggle to develop an exercise regimen here. Many feel overwhelmed and don’t feel they have the time. If this is the issue, change your perspective: exercise isn’t adding to your problem – it’s part of the solution. Exercise is one of the simplest, least expensive ways to manage stress and maintain life balance. With a little creativity, you can build exercise into your routine here.

Sometimes cost is an issue. If running in the great LA weather doesn’t appeal and joining a gym in the Hollywood area is too expensive, there are still numerous opportunities for free and FUN fitness in the area. All of these offer the opportunity to meet people as well.
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