Apple Watch Study Raises Questions About Exercise Addiction

By Lindsey Weedston 10/25/19

Participants in an Apple Watch study worry that the tech could bring out an "obsessive tendency" in its wearers.

man wearing Apple Watch

A Duke University study that provides select students with free Apple Watches to monitor their health and wellness habits has some questioning whether the use of these and similar devices could have unintended consequences.

Duke student Naima Turbes—who previously found herself addicted to fulfilling step goals set by devices like the Apple Watch—talked to fellow students who participated in the study about how the technology has impacted their health and their lives.

The three-year WearDuke project was announced in November 2018. All first-year students of 2019 were offered the wearable devices as part of a study conducted by Professor of Medicine Geoff Ginsburg and Associate Professor of Medicine Susanne Haga. The researchers were interested in collecting data on students' sleep habits, diet, and other aspects of personal health.

The Sleep Factor

“We will initially be focusing on sleep because sleep is very well documented [as something] college students don’t get enough of,” said Haga. “And it’s important to health, mental well-being and academic performance.”

The idea is to promote better health awareness and, in a later study, offer advice on improving personal habits. However, early interviews with participating students suggest that awareness of bad habits may not be as helpful as they hoped.

“As a [first-year], I am just trying to get used to having a different schedule than in high school,” said Duke freshman Ian Acriche. “I have the same bad sleep habits, but now my Apple watch just reminds me of them.”

“I have not changed my actions, but I am more cognizant of how much sleep I am getting at night,” said Kelyce Allen, another first-year.

Obsessing Over Diet & Exercise

Turbes fears that the watches may end up promoting obsessiveness over one’s health, particularly as the study shifts focus from sleep to diet and exercise.

“What if the study lights an obsessive tendency in a student that could have been avoided?” Turbes writes. “Hearing people talk about increasing exercise for a watch reminds me of dark moments walking around my backyard to hit an arbitrary step goal. I would not wish that on anyone.”

Other students she spoke with said that they checked their watch for the time, notifications, and heart rate up to 20 times per day.

Exercise addiction has been studied and discussed for several years, sometimes in connection with eating disorders, though it is not listed in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal estimated that 0.3% to 0.5% of the global population experience symptoms of exercise addiction.

"We tend to—rightfully so—think of exercise as a really positive thing we need to be doing, and most of us don't exercise enough and aren't getting a hold of the health-related benefits of exercise," said lead study author Heather Hausenblas. "But like with any behavior, we can take it to an extreme."

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: