The Nocebo Effect Is Why Your Fitness Tracker May Be Doing More Harm Than Good

Fitness trackers, their data, and algorithms have a place as they should. Decide where that place is before your device does it for you.

I have a love-dislike (I dislike using the other strong word, even figuratively) relationship with my Apple Watch. Not because my failing eyes strain to read the miniature type or because clicking an app icon is a frustrating version of whac-a-mole. I purchased it to enhance my health and performance after being lured in by all the fancy ways it can.

My Fitness Tracker Has Ideas of its Own

The more I tried to put my watch to work for me, the more I realized it had other ideas of its own. I know my watch was only doing its job, but what it told me made me feel worse.


Don’t get me wrong. I like numbers just as much as the next cyclist. When it comes to fitness trackers, I’m not in the minority.  Wearable technology is the number one fitness trend for 2022, according to a new survey.  

Apple watch health tracker image

While I occasionally fall victim to a mild case of paralysis by analysis, the effects are short-lived. The power meter on my bike and the heart rate monitor on my arm are doing their jobs, but it’s different. The numbers are what they are, and my coach and I can use them as we wish. I wouldn’t train or compete without them.    


My watch, or any other fitness trackers out there, also gives us numbers, but it’s what it does with them that throws me off. It takes the data and tries to do the thinking for my coach and me. What’s more, it also tries to tell me how I should feel. That’s where it loses me and why I have lost it.

More Monitoring Doesn’t Always Equal More Healthy

There is no clear answer to the more monitoring question. A recent study found that people who tried to lose weight without using a fitness tracker had better results. The experts surveyed for a review in the Americal Journal of Medicine saw “little indication that wearable devices provide a benefit for health outcomes.” Not to mention the scrutiny wearable technology manufacturers are under for the accuracy and reliability of their devices.  

Data Analytics Have Their Rightful Place and Should

Metrics like Heart Rate Variability have their place, as explored in this article I recently published on The ZOM. As do the multiple iterations of heart rate data, whether resting, active, or upon awakening.  Endurance training and performance were revolutionized by analytical data assessment and it continues to evolve.  


Sleep is essential to performance and life, as well. Having an idea of how much we have slept is helpful information. We try our best to get the rest we need, even if it doesn’t always work out that way.  What could go wrong?


So I put on my watch, downloaded the apps, and clicked all the boxes. Then drifted off dreaming of the wonderful information that would greet me in the morning. That’s when it began happening.

Elf quote "You sit on a throne of lies"

Seize the Day I Say—Not Today Said My Watch

I awoke renewed and refreshed and ready to conquer the day. With a pep in my step and my chest puffed out in defiance of the world’s challenges, my watch presented me with the one I didn’t anticipate. It turns out I’m NOT renewed and refreshed, but somewhat sleep-deprived, unrecovered, and ill-equipped to seize anything.


With slumped shoulders and a lazy sigh, I shuffled the day away as I awaited another chance to make things right. Nonetheless, I had a great ride and awoke the following day feeling like I was back on track. My watch didn’t.


The self-fulfilling cycle replayed itself, and now and then, my watch would tell me I felt great like I thought I felt. It kept me interested, but the more it went on, the more it became a problem. Worrying about what my watch would tell me about how I feel shouldn’t be keeping me up at night.

Quality sleep tracker image
Staying up nights during November according to my fitness tracker!

Worrying About Sleeping Shouldn’t Keep Me Up Nights

As I got more skeptical of my 24-7 real-time feedback monitoring, I approached the problem as I do most others. I did some research and asked my fellow cyclists about it. The answers my riding buddies gave ranged from “I think mine is broken” to “I don’t use it for that much anymore.” The research took me to a place I didn’t know existed and may affect more people than just me.


We are all familiar with the word placebo—the profound influence of positive information on our perception of improved well-being. The concept enters into many decisions whether we know it or not.


Bet you also weren’t aware scientists have studied and identified the opposite phenomena. It happens when negative data and information give individuals the perception that they feel bad even if their body tells them otherwise. It’s called a Nocebo, Latin for “I shall harm,” whereas placebo is “I shall please.”  

I felt recovered and refreshed, despite what my watch said, and my performance told the true story.

Beware the Nocebo Hiding Behind the Guise of Technology, Says A Sports Scientist and Cycling Coach

My watch is causing me more harm than good, so please take it away. In this recent research, scientists studied the interplay of exercise, placebo, and nocebo effects on experimental pain. It turns out, even a color cue associated with pain harms our perception of discomfort.


“The numbers are only here to help,” agrees Sports Scientist and cycling coach Jason Boynton, Ph.D., “and if they are not helping your performance then something has to change.”  According to Dr. Boynton, if knowledge of the numbers is contributing to an undesirable outcome in training, performance, or athlete well-being, then a shift is required.


Dr. Boynton helps his athletes acquire a better understanding of what the numbers actually mean, the extent of their utility, and their shortcomings.  “Having a healthier perception of the numbers,” advises Dr. Boynton, “or in some extreme cases, ignoring the data that are contributing to the issue while still collecting it.”  


The goal for the coach and his athlete is ideally to have a healthy and realistic relationship with their numbers.  A relationship a fitness tracker is not capable of nurturing by coloring our perception.

More negative sleep feedback.

Technology Should Improve Our Lives, Not Confuse Us

The fitness tracker people likely didn’t have this in mind when designating colorful circles to tell us when we’re stressed, tired, fit, or should get up to take a walk. The intention was to improve our lives through technology, but it is doing the opposite in some instances.  


Unfortunately, the unintended negative consequences of technology have sensitized us to nocebo influence. Social media gave individuals the power to express themselves and connect with others at its inception. However, as the Wall Street Journal reported in September, inspiration is replaced by feelings of anxiety, depression, and poor self-worth and image.  

More November PRs!

The Tangled Web of Technology and Nocebo Pervades Our Lives

The constant interactive feedback of likes, hits, and views thwarts the nurturing environment of creativity. Much like my watch tries to replace my subjective sense of myself as I shutter with the thought of taking a look to see how I am or am supposed to be.


We don’t need a device to tell us how we feel. We don’t need an anonymous surface communal, societal network to tell us we’re good people. Nor do we need either to forewarn us to danger. Or prevent us from being blindsided by the unexpected, unforeseen, or unable to be seen threats to our physical and mental health.

Happy I didn't listen and let it get me down!

Conclusion—A Technological Pat on the Back

We’re pretty good at doing that for ourselves with the tools we have. Just once, I’d like to look down at my watch to be greeted by a hand wave emoji and the words, “You’re gonna be alright!”  


It’s all we truly need. Numbers are good too, but let me and my coach decide to do with them. My watch is alright, too, as long as I keep it at arm’s length.

Your Thoughts?

Do you have any nocebos in your life?  Comment below!  Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.


For more discussion and debate exploring the mental side of cycling check out the features page of The ZOM!

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