The toxic consequences of checking your rings

The toxic consequences of checking your rings

Is there such thing as knowing too much?
Published: April 7, 2023

Abby Sleeper had to be dragged out of the house for her best friend’s birthday dinner.

She had already been feeling anxious that day and did not want to go out in public. She eventually was convinced, but while at dinner she held her friend’s hand, as well as her friend’s mother’s, under the table. She was dizzy and shaking; her eyes were blurry.

Sleeper was diagnosed with anxiety when she was five years old, but as she got older she started to notice physical responses to her anxiety. Her heart would start to race, sometimes leading to heart palpitations. When she was 20, her sister’s father-in-law died of a heart attack and she convinced herself she was next. The result: a vicious cycle of excessive heart-rate monitoring using her Apple Watch.

Apple released the Apple Watch Ultra in September of 2022, its most advanced wearable product yet. The Watch can handle and track more kinds of exercise than before, including extreme sports and activities like scuba diving.

But the new, enhanced health features are what make the Ultra most concerning. Temperature sensing, which can track menstrual cycles in female users, and more efficient electrocardiogram (ECG) abilities make the Ultra much more invasive than previous editions. Certain studies have found that wearables can make health anxiety worse for users, leading to obsessive habits and behaviors.

For most of us, the Apple Watch is like a nagging not-so-significant other, pestering you to reach self-set goals, seven days a week. Apple Watch data follows users like a shadow, a constant metric of self worth attached to your wrist.

The Apple Watch perpetuates negative feelings for many users, no matter where those feelings come from. This phenomenon, referred to as the nocebo effect by Bloomberg, was first introduced in the 1960s. Studies show that participants’  awareness of pain would increase when given more detail about an injury.

For 22-year-old Emma Harrington, who tracks her lifting workouts and runs with her Watch, push notifications are nothing but a nuisance.

Even though she could ignore some notifications, Harrington said she felt like her Watch fostered an unhealthy relationship with exercising. Besides her own workouts, Harrington would compete with her friends, a feature Apple claims to be encouraging and motivating.

“There have been so many points in the past year where I would base my day around having to charge it and making sure it was alive,” she said. “It would make me upset about myself if I didn’t meet standards or do the same that my friends were doing.”

The Apple Watch was a helpful tool when Katharine Henderson, 22, had to readjust her workouts during COVID-19. After gyms closed, Henderson started running on her own and used her Watch to track her heart rate and mileage on runs.

But the persistent notifications grew to be more than a nuisance for Henderson. These seemingly harmless notifications and features cause anxiety for many, exacerbating unhealthy habits and feelings of guilt. If her Watch did not account for all twelve hours of standing necessary to close her Stand Ring, she would get up and walk around to close the ring – even if it was 11 p.m. and she was already in bed.

Henderson grew interested in tracking her heart rate during cardio workouts, wearing both a Polar heart rate monitor and her Apple Watch to compare results.

“Going through COVID, which was a very isolating experience even when I was interacting with people, it was something that allowed me to feel more in control, because the metrics are there,” Henderson said. “You can be more obsessive because you think you’re seeing an actual measurable output.”

Calculate your heart rate
Checking your heart rate manually is a good alternative to wearing an Apple Watch.

Interaction with the Watch’s feedback is heavily influenced by that user’s relationship with exercise and how it influences their own identity.

Boston-based sports psychologist Dr. Gerald Reid explained why it is so important for consumers to understand the impacts of wearable technology.

“If you’re using the feedback in a way that’s going to be unhealthy, it’s probably tied up to your identity,” Reid said. “It could be a trigger. If you can’t regulate yourself or your feelings, you’re probably more susceptible to the negative impact, so certain people may be more vulnerable than others. But they’re not going to advertise that.”

Reid also explained that how someone approaches exercise heavily impacts their feelings around working out. If someone’s goal is to lose weight, working out will always be a discouraging experience because losing weight does not happen overnight, Reid said.

“It’s an immediate reward if you’re doing it to feel good,” he said. “You’re always going to feel better.”

Feelings of guilt are universal among many types of users, and users who work out on their own time are not the only ones who struggle with obsessive habits. Feedback from the Apple Watch poses struggles for college athletes as well.

Syracuse University Junior CJ Fox is a hurdler and sprinter for Syracuse Track & Field. Fox was gifted her Apple Watch when she was in high school, but has tried to separate herself from it since becoming overly attentive to her metrics, especially her calories. “It became a game for me,” Fox said. “I would track all my steps and my workouts and was trying to beat it every single day.”

Once Fox got to Syracuse, trying to beat her metrics from previous days or workouts became too difficult. It was unrealistic for Fox to never have an off day, to always be improving.

Fox has stopped wearing her watch during meets and only wears it during practice if she is running 300 meters or longer.

“It doesn’t function properly when I’m hurdling,” Fox said. “A race is entirely mental. [Running] hurdles is different than if I’m running flat out. Hurdles is like a dance. It’s me calculating my steps, my arms are coming back, my legs are snapping forward. I’m not thinking about the fact that I’m not wearing my watch.”

Not wearing her watch as often has not been easy. On off days, she will subconsciously restrict how much she eats, limiting her food groups to proteins and greens. If she’s doing a sprinting workout during practice and does not have her watch on, she will ask her teammates who are wearing one how many calories they burn during that practice.

“It’s a struggle, because it’s so backwards. I’ll say that about a sprint workout but wear my watch for a longer workout. I’m still figuring that out, and hopefully I’ll make peace with it down the line,” Fox said.

Fox’s coaches do not recommend wearing a watch at all, she said. But that does not stop her other teammates from wearing one.

Sophomore Olivia Etienvre also sprints for Syracuse University. Etienvre explained that, even though she knows it can be a distraction, she wears it during practices and meets.

“I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with how many calories I burn, but I want to reach the goal that I set for everyday. When I forget to wear it, I feel like I didn’t accomplish a goal,” she said.

LikeFox, if Etienvre does not wear her Watch one day, she’ll restrict her food intake.

Dr. Reid, who was a coach before he became a psychologist, works closely with male and female athletes, many of whom play hockey, gymnastics and track & field. Reid explained that female athletes commonly feel pressure from coaches to perform at a certain level, but the body type necessary to perform at that level does not fall into accepted gender norms.

“Particularly in sports, you can get mixed signals as a female athlete. There may be conflicting feelings about what you need to do for your sport versus how society may expect you to look,” Reid said.

Abby Sleeper saw her doctor last July to get her heart checked. The first thing the doctor advised was to take off her Watch. But Sleeper had two challenges to overcome. She had to let go of her health anxiety and also any guilty feelings she had when she did anything without her Watch. When she had been working out, she was convinced that her heart rate would spike or she would die, so she stopped exercising.

She took her Watch off after her appointment, but after two days without it she put it back on. She instantly fell back into her old habits and had another panic attack. Her mother made her take it off, and it sat in her bedside table drawer, dead, for thirteen months.

In March 2022, she forced herself to try exercising again. Her roommates would check her wrists and make sure she wasn’t wearing her Watch before she left for the gym.

Adjusting to working out without her Watch was difficult at first, Sleeper said. She transitioned from her typical regimen of hardcore cardio–an avid spin enthusiast–and eased her way back into exercise.

“I beat myself up even more because I hadn’t been in so long and that was like, who I was, and when I went back to it it didn’t count,” Sleeper said.

There are other ways to track exercise without being subject to the incessant notifications.

Ryan Hewitt, a chiropractor based in Massachusetts, actively decides to use wearable technologies without user interfaces on the device itself. He finds that  having a user interface is irritating to him, and he only wears his Apple Watch if he is training for a triathlon.

Using his WHOOP, a wearable that connects to your phone but has no interface on the device, Hewitt is able to track his metrics but is not bothered by them throughout his day.

“It just stores the data, and you can look at it whenever you want,” Hewitt said. “If I had something showing me my heart rate all the time, or my blood pressure, I would probably look at it constantly.”

Now, many Watch wearers wonder how to halt feelings of guilt and not become wrapped up in a wearable device dictating their everyday life. Those who leave their wearable behind often say they are one step closer to a life of freedom from the constraints of meaningless metrics.

“I finally came to the realization that I was deathly petrified of going to the gym two months ago, and now I’m actually going, so I need to be proud of that. And whether my stupid app says I went or didn’t, that doesn’t matter. because I know that I did,” Sleeper said.