Evlo Fitness/Education/Fitness Myths/My Top 3 Reasons Why I Don’t Wear a Fitness Watch
11/05/2021
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Shannon Ritchey
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My Top 3 Reasons Why I Don’t Wear a Fitness Watch

I stopped wearing a fitness watch years ago and never looked back. I’ve talked about my personal experiences with exercise in the “How to internalize you’ve done enough” podcast, but let’s just say that I was obsessing over exercise and my goals were on how many calories I could burn. This was at the cost of my mental health, sleep, joint health, and sometimes even my performance at work because I was exhausted, overworked, and under-rested. During this time where I was working out a ton and had a focus on burning calories, I actually had very little muscle. It’s hard for me to gain muscle in the first place, but I think I felt and looked frail. It wasn’t effective for me to focus my attention on burning calories. Choosing to no longer wear my fitness watch was a cascade of decisions that ultimately changed how I view exercise and really turned my health around. 

Ditching my fitness watch wasn’t some “magical solution,” but it was something that I found was contributing to my unhealthy view of exercise and burning calories. I want to say that fitness watches can be beneficial for some people. I’ve read that more sedentary people can benefit from wearing fitness watches to get more activity. And some of you will listen to this podcast and decide that you want to keep using your watch. And I think that is 100% fine – I don’t want you to feel guilty for using it if you like your reasons for using it. But for my audience – my guess is that you get enough activity, now you just need to learn how to stop feeling guilty for doing more, more, more. Que my suggestion to ditch your fitness watch. Today, I’ll discuss my three main reasons why I don’t recommend relying on your fitness watch for exercise. 

The first is because burning calories in your workouts aren’t as important as we think. Number two is about how fitness watches can mess with our motivation – I’ll talk about some interesting theories about dopamine. And lastly, I’ll talk about how fitness watches don’t account for the most important thing in your workout: how effectively you’re loading and stressing your muscles. 

Calories Burned Aren’t as Important as We Think 

I feel like I talk about this almost every episode – so for those of you who listen every week, I apologize. But there is SO much focus on “burn off more than you ate for weight loss,” and this gets people into issues. Number one, exercise burns far fewer calories than we actually think it does – around 10% of our daily energy. Most of our calories are used for moving our bodies throughout our days, powering processes like digestion, and fueling our brains. So exercise is a far smaller percentage of our overall energy expenditure, even if you are exercising very intensely. 

Exercise Actually Isn’t Shown to Improve Your Caloric Deficit Very Effectively 

A model called the constrained total energy model, which I talked about in detail in the episode called “Debunking that burning more calories leads to faster weight loss,” states that even if you burn a lot of calories in your workout, your body will adjust by down-regulating other processes to keep you within a narrow window of calories burned, in an attempt to constrain your energy and not over-extend. This could be an evolutionary trait that helped keep us from completely draining ourselves and having no energy left for vital processes that keep us alive. This theory showed that exercising more isn’t very effective for weight loss – at least if you’re doing it just to burn calories. You may lose a few pounds with extra exercise, but it tends to cap around 4lbs. So you can maybe lose about 4lb or so, and then it tends to level off unless you are making nutrition changes. 

Burning a Ton of Calories Can Lead to Increased Hunger  

Many people burn a ton of calories in their workouts, and later get STARVING and over-eat what they “burned off.” They think they “earned” their food, and make poor food decisions. There is no “earning” food – we need food to live. And if we start believing that we need to burn off our food, that’s where we develop a dangerous relationship with exercise and food. Disordered eating is not my expertise so I don’t want to get too deep into that, and I also want to encourage you to seek help if you think you may be struggling with this, but these are all observations that I’ve made with myself and with the people I’ve worked with. And again, if you believe burning a ton of calories is putting you into more of a deficit, but in reality, it isn’t because of the constrained energy model, you could think you have more of a buffer around caloric needs and over-eat. 

I always say, if weight loss is your goal – manage stress and focus on what you’re eating, NOT what you’re burning. Trust me, you will see weight loss so much faster and so much more sustainably. If you’re running for an hour and then eat the kitchen when you get home because you’re starving and your watch has told you that you’ve burned off a donut, 5 Oreos, and a glass of wine, you’re just going to end up frustrated. I’m not implying that you shouldn’t appropriately fuel after your workouts, but people can get hunger cues after intense exercise that may be making it more difficult to stick to their meal plans. 

Shifting the way we look at exercise to be less “burn off what I ate or will eat” and more “build my body up and fuel appropriately to help with that” is a much more effective and sustainable and enjoyable place to be. And the fourth reason why burning calories isn’t as effective as we think is that many people will begin to burn calories at all costs – because that number at the end of their workout is their motivation, not the actual exercise itself or how their workouts will affect their body in the long-term. This means they move faster, work harder, and potentially choose movements that are damaging to their bodies just because they know it will burn more. 

For anyone who has been through this, you know it’s not a sustainable way to exercise. You’ll spend hours each week on a massage table or in your PT’s office just to put you back together from your workouts. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can effectively exercise AND feel good in your joints. Your workouts should make you feel stronger, better, more resilient, and more energetic, and more mood-stable, – not broken down, fragile, painful, exhausted, and starving, and dysfunctional.

Another reason why I’m not a big fan of fitness watches is their effect on motivation.

Again, a disclaimer that some people love their fitness watch and feel like it positively motivates them. So if you don’t resonate with this, that’s completely ok. I just listened to a podcast called the Huberman Lab, Andrew Huberman is a neurology professor at Stanford – so he knows his stuff about neuromodulators.  But he was talking about dopamine and its effects on motivation. I thought some of his discussion would be perfect to apply to today’s episode and theorize about the potential effects of fitness watches on motivation.

Dopamine is a neuromodulator that is important for motivation. It gets released when we do things that are pleasurable – like taking a bite of delicious food, having sex, having a successful social interaction, and, of course, exercise. Its evolutionary purpose is to reward us and motivate us to seek activities that are likely to keep us alive. Dopamine can be great – it motivates us to pursue the things that we want in our lives. But dopamine and rewards can be used for us or against us, and that’s where fitness watches may come in. 

There are two interesting things to discuss here. First is something I researched called reward prediction and subsequent dopamine activity. When you are unexpectedly given a reward from a behavior, you get a release in dopamine. Because that dopamine makes you feel good, it motivates you to repeat that behavior. As you repeat the activity and learning takes place, you get less of a “hit” when you get the reward. This either makes you want more of the activity or doesn’t motivate you as strongly as it did before. 

When the reward is NOT received from that same activity, dopamine drops – this sends a negative feedback signal to the brain and weakens the pleasant association you had with that activity. This can be applied to anything that releases dopamine or any reward – and is how gambling and slot machines work. But it could also be applied to exercise. If you are “rewarded” from your fitness watch after a workout, you will associate positive feelings with exercise. This sounds great, this is what we want to keep us consistent. 

But calories burned isn’t the best metric, as I said earlier. You could have a workout where your heart is beating, you’re sweating, but your knees hurt the whole time, you didn’t really fatigue your muscles and it overall didn’t feel great. But that dopamine hit from your fitness watch may keep you coming back to that workout that maybe isn’t benefiting your body as much as you think it is. On the contrary, you could have a workout that felt amazing – muscles burning, heart rate up, feeling amazing, and you end your workout and didn’t burn as much as you usually do. This lack of dopamine hit means you aren’t as motivated to choose that type of workout because you didn’t get the reward – even though it could be better for your body and produce better results. 

The good news is – we have very evolved human brains, and we can become aware of this and intentionally choose workouts that feel really good and fatiguing on our muscles, and re-wire our associations to those workouts by ditching the reward of the calories burned at the end.

Andrew Huberman also speaks on how the greatest human successes come from learning to release dopamine DURING the activity, rather than waiting for the reward to release dopamine AFTER the activity. So less of a “you’re done, here’s a gold star” and more learning to love the process. He says that learning to access the rewards from the activity itself and getting pleasure from the activity itself rather than from what gold star you get afterward is much more sustainable and will produce better long-term results. Because if you are always expecting a dopamine hit from the reward, you eliminate the ability to generate pleasure DURING the effort, and this makes the effort more painful. 

In order to keep doing the activity, Huberman explains that you’ll need more dopamine-driving activities like louder music, more caffeine, more social interactions – just to get yourself to the gym. Your brain is wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain – which explains how you can quickly burn yourself out and quit from seeking that end reward rather than training yourself to enjoy the process. When your reward is the gold star you get from your fitness watch, Huberman describes that we dissociate the neural circuits of dopamine and reward that we would have normally gotten from exercise alone. Over time, you have less and less pleasure exercising – it begins to become a drag. 

So here’s what I recommend given this information – learn to feel really good DURING your workout. Ditch your fitness watch and focus on two primary things in every workout and in every exercise within that workout: comfortable and satisfying. I talk about this in class a lot, but we don’t torture ourselves for no good reason. I know this sounds small, but things like resting your head on a pillow when we’re working arms in side-lying, or making small mechanical tweaks like shifting into a wall during lunges to place more comfortable forces through the knees, or adjusting your form slightly so it feels more comfortable and fluid on your joints. The second thing is to choose exercises that feel satisfying. They feel like they’re really doing something – contracting muscles. I call this “feeling cooked,” and it’s something that feels satisfying and makes you feel good and accomplished both during and after the workout. So that’s motivation and dopamine. 

The third reason I don’t recommend a fitness watch is because it doesn’t give you a metric for the most important thing in your workouts: how you’re loading and stressing your muscles.

Yes, cardiovascular health is important and is measured via heart rate on a fitness watch. But if you’re strengthening your muscles, your heart rate will go up and your cardio health will improve. You can always add short cardio bursts or walks if you want more – but muscle improves your cardiovascular system because more muscle means your heart and lungs have more tissue to serve and need to work harder. 

Muscle is also important for body composition and utilization of glucose, which I talked about in last week’s episode called “how different workouts affect your body.”You all know how important I think muscle is, and I also don’t think women should worry too much about getting bulky. If you get to a muscle mass you’re happy with, you can maintain that muscle mass by still weight training, but by not increasing your resistance or volume. But we lose muscle as we age, so we have to use it and increase it as much as possible to keep a healthy, and truthfully, youthful body.

If you feel like you have a healthy relationship with your watch, I don’t want to discourage you from using it. But I’ve talked to many people who have stopped using one and they’ve never gone back. In short, whether or not you decide to keep using it – I really think listening to your muscles rather than your fitness watch is the way to go.

So let’s go through some reasons why you may want to keep your watch and some reasons for why you may want to ditch it. 

  • Keep it:
    • You get a reasonable amount of activity with it, you aren’t experiencing symptoms of overuse or over-exercise like constant soreness/tightness/joint pain, exhaustion, etc., you can leave the house without it and not obsess or worry, it’s a good reminder for you to move if you feel like you would be very sedentary otherwise
      • My parents are examples of people who have a really good/healthy relationship with it
  • Consider ditching it if:
    • You feel naked without it 
    • You feel like your workout “doesn’t count” if you forgot it or accidentally forgot to start your watch
    • You do extra things outside your workout if you didn’t “burn enough” calories during your workout – like running in place
    • You feel unsatisfied if you didn’t close your rings every day, and feel guilty about taking a rest day
    • You measure the effectiveness of your workout by calories burned and think it’s “not enough” unless you’ve burned a certain number 
    • You’d turn around to get your watch if you left it at home 
    • You justify food decisions because of how much you burned in your workout. Or on the contrary, over-restrict if you didn’t burn enough 
    • You are constantly distracted by checking your heart rate/calories during your workout – to the point where you may ignore joint pain/discomfort/sacrifice form during your workout 
    • You discount workouts where you felt great muscle fatigue because they didn’t “burn enough calories” 
    • You won’t even give a workout program a chance that isn’t focused on burning calories and pushing your heart rate to the max