Mind, Body, Machine: How are fitness trackers changing our mind-body relationships?

As a psychotherapist and health coach, I work with people who have all kinds of relationships with themselves, their bodies, and food.

These can lead to challenges with eating, body image, over-exercising, under-recovering, and/or chronic stress.
These kinds of problems have a theme: disconnect from the body.

I see many people with friction between what their body is saying it needs and what they think the body needs. They centre around a lack of awareness for what the body is asking for. It’s a draining and relentless experience of guessing – and the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.

The human mind and body have evolved to provide feedback, but so many of us aren’t well-practiced in listening to it.

Fitness trackers: What are they for?

We live in a world that is obsessed with data – every area of life is inundated metrics and numbers.
Fitness trackers exist to track various measures of what your body is doing – biometrics.
You’re probably familiar with fitness trackers by now. If not, they’re simple. They are wearable devices that provide data on health markers:

  • Heart rate: the amount of beats your heart is performing per minute
  • Heart-rate variability (HRV): the timing difference between heartbeats – a key measure for stress and recovery and more important year by year!
  • Sleep duration and quality: crucial for all aspects of mental and physical wellbeing – since we recover mentally, physically, and emotionally through sleep.
  • Exercise tracking (and steps): an interesting way of checking on activity and monitoring day-to-day change. A great tool, but a bad obsession – so very down to the individual!
  • Blood sugar: continuous glucose monitors measure energy supply and circulating carb levels for metabolic health and monitoring how you fuel your body through the day.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you have at least seen wearable fitness devices. The market only continues to expand with HRV, sleep tracking, and continuous glucose monitoring at the forefront.

These trackers are fascinating when they tell us things we don’t know about ourselves. It can be important when we want to make change but don’t know where to start – or what is causing problems. They’re best when they offer a conscious awareness of the mind-body’s processes we can’t see.

Their popularity is all part of our increasingly health-conscious culture – but what is that doing to our relationship with our bodies?

What fitness trackers do to our relationship with ourselves

Fitness trackers have an interesting capacity to challenge set views we might have about what’s good for us.
They can help you get out of your own head and stop overthinking about food and exercise. They offer you hard information on things like last night’s drinking and how it affected your sleep quality. They’ll also measure things like work stress and how it affects your heart rate.

Trackers draw attention to the silent changes that you could easily overlook.

Wearing a whoop for a year drew attention to how much stress affected my next-day recovery score. I thought I was managing stress well but Whoop data showed otherwise – and I had to make a change to take care of myself more effectively.

I took my whoop data and used it to reflect on my stress levels. I focused on breathwork practice and started changing the stressful aspects of my lifestyle – or at least my response to them. I did what I could to make active change in life because the data prompted me.

My HRV improved dramatically and that helped me deal with future stress and anxiety. It made me more resilient and brought balance to my stress and recovery. I wouldn’t have made these changes without the data from Whoop telling me that, no, I wasn’t handling my stress effectively before!

Could I have figured all that out without a device tracking me? Perhaps.

However, I didn’t have to wait for it to become obvious through its symptoms. The data from my tracker supported me in the early stages of these changes before I could feel them working.

It’s hard to argue with hard data and it agreed with my sense in myself that something needed to change. I just didn’t know what until Whoop data prompted me. This thing was my over-active stress response and my HRV brought that to my attention.

HRV measures strain in your mind-body system. It can be difficult to detect and interpret these changes – especially with the difficulty we have in the stories we tell ourselves about what we feel and why.

It’s easy to ignore your body and just rely on the story – but the data helps you get to what is really happening inside.

Here a door opens for disrupting difficult thought patterns around how we eat, how we treat our bodies, and how effectively we deal with stress.

Whoop even notes this as one of its own major benefits. In a recent blog post, a client reflects on how an HRV monitor served as a powerful tool in shifting her destructive relationship to food and her body.

Data can act as a tool to challenge how you relate to yourself so you’re not just changing habits around food or exercise, you are creating space to relate to yourself in a way that is more aligned with your genuine physical and psychological needs.

Functional, but we need to watch that closely, too.

If you’re prone to relying on an external source of information (such as your scale, or a food tracking app) you may find an HRV tracker to be too much. If it’s a preoccupation, it may deepen a problem rather than solving one.

When we get too focused on biometric data, it takes us away from our felt experiences. Preoccupation with numbers suggests a need for more awareness of your internal environment. What you are feeling and experiencing when you work, eat, train, or rest?

This should be a process of improving your health, wellbeing, and quality of life. A tracker shouldn’t become something you live to placate. Check in with yourself and your relationship to data regularly to see if it’s still serving you.

The idea is that data shows you what is working and when. It shouldn’t be the main reason you do something: sleep is for the body, not for your sleep tracker. It’s a supportive gadget – not a replacement for developing self-awareness!

So what’s a balanced way forward?

As humans we have an amazing capacity to adapt. Unfortunately, this means we can also adapt to things that we shouldn’t. We can adapt to eating too little food, feeling tired on a daily basis, or to sleeping inadequately.

A tracker can put numbers to this and provide direction for better quality of life.

Trackers are powerful for disruption of thought patterns or repetitive cognitive habits that are getting in our way. Once we disrupt and challenge these patterns, we can start to explore with ourselves how we really feel – both in body and mind.

A beautiful thing happens when we combine our personal felt experience of ourselves with some external data or information.

With this blend we can challenge areas where we might be stuck, quantify things that prompt positive change, and we can empower better decision making. We take back control, build resilience, and improve wellbeing.

Let’s not become reliant on a machine to tell us how we are! Take the power away from the scale or the food tracking app. Instead ask yourself, ‘how do I feel today in myself? Do I feel rested and ready? Agitated? Depleted? Restored?’ – fitness wearables should prompt those questions, not answer them.

Ultimately, we need to be experts in ourselves and read our emotional and physical state. We need to honour whatever state we are in: Recognise it, let it be real and valid. It can tell us what we need, and what we don’t need, and we don’t need to try to override it.

If you want to dig deeper, an HRV monitor will give you more information about your whole-person health (particularly autonomic health). Autonomic health gives us scope to improve our mind-body health in unprecedented ways.

I incorporate HRV and breathwork into my practice as a psychotherapist and coach.

It’s a way of learning about, disrupting, planning, supporting your whole-person health. The results I aim for with clients? Resilience, improved mood, increased energy, and more capacity for what life throws at you.