IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Fitbit Reignited My Eating Disorder

Are fitness bands doing more harm than good?
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Andria Martin
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Are fitness bands doing more harm than good?

I received a Fitbit Flex from my company as a white elephant gift at our holiday party. At first, I was stoked! I couldn’t wait to start using the band and app to give me a little extra motivation to work out for my upcoming wedding. 

What I didn’t anticipate was just how much it would motivate me.

The device is designed to reward users for reaching goals about exercise and diet. The band buzzes and lights up when you hit your step goal. Green smiley faces appear when you’ve lost weight. Red frowns sit heavily next to your least active day in a weekly progress report. 

You earn badges for hitting benchmarks such as walking 30,000 steps in a day (that’s about 15 miles) or logging ever-increasing numbers of lifetime miles. This was one of my favorite features: Each badge was a little reminder of my happy youth as a Girl Scout. 

The Fitbit’s buzzing, lights, emails, and push notifications incited a Pavlovian reaction. Every time I was rewarded, I got a jolt of energy. I felt like a champion.

Within less than a week of use, I became addicted. The arbitrary goals I set for myself had to be enforced. I had to wear it all the time and track every minute of activity correctly. Every bite of food. Every hour of sleep. Every everything. My fiancé joked that my Fitbit was turning me into a FitBOT. I laughed, but his comment made my stomach churn. 

I felt the eating disorder I spent years fighting with creeping up on me, and I didn’t want to think about that. I wanted to stay comfortably in denial and let my new habits lead me to fitness. And, of course, to thinness. 

Watch and Fitbit on wrist.

Not cute.

That uncomfortable moment should have been my clue to take the Fitbit off. From the beginning of high school through my senior year of college I struggled with various eating disorders. Anorexia, purging disorder, bulimia, laxative abuse, exercise addiction, obsessive calorie counting, and on they went. I never recovered from one form of disordered behavior without adopting something new. Each manifestation was a safety blanket, a way to avoid being (oh, the horror!) fat.

Then, during my junior year of college, I broke up with my high school sweetheart. In the depression that followed, I saw a therapist for the first time. It took over a year, but that wonderful woman helped me get over my ex AND my ED. 

I’ve spent over four years in recovery now, and I think that’s where the danger lies. When you’ve been “healed” from a mental illness for long enough, sometimes you forget that you have the capacity to be sick. But it’s actually pretty damn easy to pick right back up with your old buddy ED.

Enter the Fitbit. Before long, it wasn’t enough to track everything. I started competing against myself. Walk more steps. Work out longer. Every day I had to do more. 

If I was too busy actually having a life to meet my step goal, I would cry and feel incredibly guilty for eating. At times, I purged out of distress. I woke up hours before work to walk and skipped lunch to get in an extra spin class. I came home late so I could go to not one, but two boot camp classes. I made excuses to miss dinners with friends so I could control my calories. 

Working out over five hours a day and obsessing over my food intake was exhausting. The band around my wrist began to feel less like a tool and more like a handcuff attaching me to exercise addiction and disordered thoughts.

A few months later, I finally got up the courage to take the Fitbit off for a few hours so I could wear my favorite watch. First I tried wearing them together, but, thankfully, vanity prevailed. There was lightness in my step and my spirits that day. I didn’t think about the food I was eating, outside of how tasty it was. I didn’t pace to get more steps in. I just lived and moved naturally. Happily. 

As soon as I got home and put the Fitbit back on, I wanted to cry. I was immediately worried about all the things I was free from minutes before. So in my greatest feat of strength since I started using the Fitbit, I took it back off. 

I tried wearing it a few more times, telling myself that I could handle it, and that this time would be different. But every time I put it on, I found myself backsliding again. So I gave it up for good.

I’m sure Fitbit and other fitness bands are an amazing resource for the right people. But with my complicated relationship with food and exercise, all the numbers just provided more chances to feel like I would never be enough. 

I do miss the buzzing and the lights and the badges, but only because I was conditioned to want them. Wellness is a much greater reward. Today I don’t know how much I weigh, how many calories I’ve eaten, or how many miles I’ve walked. Without the numbers, I feel whole. 

Andria jumping for joy.

Jumping for joy at the end of an obstacle course race, sans Fitbit. Moving my body feels so much better without a handcuff on.