Principle #6 of Joyful Movement: Stop Relying on External Validation for Fitness Motivation

by | Feb 27, 2023

Do you ever find yourself needing external validation in order to stick to a fitness routine? It’s easy to assume that relying on external feedback is necessary for keeping up with our wellness goals and fitness motivation. However, over time this approach can become unsustainable as you may feel like your progress is dictated by someone else’s standards, and motivation falters when feedback isn’t easily accessible.

In this blog post, I will share Joyful Movement Principle # 6 -Stop Relying on External Validation- as part of my Radiant Vitality series on the 10 Principles of Joyful Movement. We’ll discuss the importance of shifting from looking outward for validation towards taking ownership of our own motivations and embracing joyful movement.

Prefer to listen?  Check out this episode of The Joyful Movement Show to hear about external validation and fitness motivation.

EP 8- The 10 Principles of Joyful Movement: #6 - Stop Relying on External Validation

Fitness Trackers Miss the Mark on Lasting Fitness Motivation

For a lot of people, fitness trackers, apps, and scales are kind of like the judge and jury used to convict us and punish us for breaking the laws set by the gym police. We use these tools of external validation to tell us if we are getting it “right” or not in terms of movement. About 20% of people in North America wear a fitness tracker. But interestingly enough, about one-third of the people who own one will stop wearing it within six months and almost half will stop within a year. But why do people stop wearing fitness trackers if it is supposed to be so helpful? In an article published in The Conversation, the authors found that in their study of 200 women with a fitbit tracker, 79% of those women felt pressured to reach their daily targets and 59% reported that they felt their daily routines to be controlled by their fitbit. 

Can you relate? After working with a lot of people on their fitness goals, I understand that anytime we start a new program or buy something new, we’re hoping that it will be the thing that will motivate us to make a positive change. But, if you have a negative feeling towards the thing (in this case fitness trackers), your motivation certainly won’t last.

Fortunately, trackers have been really well studied both for accuracy of measurement and in people’s behavior while using them. There are some good practical uses for fitness trackers, but they also have their limitations. Unfortunately, we can become really attached to the data that the device puts out that might not even be accurate.

EP 8- The 10 Principles of Joyful Movement: #6 - Stop Relying on External Validation

5 Reasons People Use Fitness Trackers

Here are five reasons why people buy and use fitness trackers along with the good, the bad, and the ugly of their accuracy and effectiveness:

To monitor their inactive time and remind them to get up and move regularly.

One purpose that people buy trackers is for that inactivity reminder and fortunately, trackers are definitely accurate at doing this. Even the basic inexpensive ones can tell you when you’ve been inactive for a long period of time and they signal you that it’s time to get up and get moving. We all know that sitting too long and staring at a screen all day is really hard on the body and the mind. So, these tools are really great for people who are sedentary and need that regular reminder to get up and move, such as office workers. But the limiting factor with this function is that it’s only helpful to people who find that hourly buzz useful and not annoying. If you’re turned off by it, it’s not motivating to help you get up and move. When it beeps, depending on your work situation, that’s not always feasible. So then you might end up silencing the tracker and not doing what is telling us to do anyways. My take on this, as a personal trainer in Ontario, is that if this is the only reason that you think you need a fitness tracker, a timer on your phone or a beep on your computer would probably work just fine. You don’t need to spend extra money on a fitness tracker.

To count their steps.

The second reason that people buy a fitness tracker is to track their steps; the main reason that the majority of fitness tracker wearers use them. For the most part, they do a pretty good job of accurately measuring the steps that you take, however, some of the cheaper wrist models can confuse random arm movements for walking. The real issue with the whole step counting feature is the whole notion that 10,000 steps a day is the gold standard that every human must be striving for. There’s actually no scientific research to prove that this is true. The number is completely arbitrary and was chosen by the manufacturers of the first pedometer back in the sixties. To date, there have been numerous studies trying to pinpoint the right amount of steps that a person needs, and the jury’s still out. The main reason they can’t come up with a number is that most of the studies look at calories burned, or weight loss as the outcome goal. Obviously, the more steps taken would result in more weight loss, but in terms of actually maintaining good heart health and mobility, the number of steps needed might actually be much lower. Maybe even as low as 3,000- 5,000. The other limiting factor in step count alone is that it doesn’t take into account the intensity of the walk. While 10,000 steps is still a lot of walking, we do know that in order to keep our hearts healthy, we need to work at a moderate to vigorous intensity. As a personal trainer with years of experience, what I took away from all this information and research is that counting steps is basically pointless.

To track the amount of time they spent being active or the distance they covered during their activity.

The third function of wearable fitness trackers is to calculate the time they spent exercising or the distance that they traveled. From an accuracy standpoint, most of the trackers out there are good at this measurement. Most trackers are about 90% accurate. This can be really useful for people who run or cycle, particularly if you go out by yourself and you only have a certain amount of time to be out, or if you’re only intending on going a certain distance, it helps you to know when to turn around. Where we can run into issues is if we become attached to achieving a certain distance, because it’s what our app or our training program says we need to do that day and ignore our body’s cues as to what’s enough. Using the tracker to monitor our pace and allowing it to dictate how fast or hard we go, is not exactly being intuitive and listening to what our body’s telling us we need to do that particular day.

To monitor heart rate.

The fourth function that some wearable fitness trackers have is the heart rate monitoring tool. This can be really useful if you’re an athlete who’s training for a particular race, sport, or distance event. Heart rate monitoring is important for athletes to self-monitor their fitness level and the intensity that they work out during a training session. However, most of us are average people or even semi-competitive athletes, and we really don’t need to monitor our heart rate. Most of us don’t know how to interpret the data anyway. There are a lot of variables at play and unless you have a specific training plan from a knowledgeable coach with heart rate zone recommendations for you specifically, you’re probably not going to do it right. It complicates something that’s very simple and innate. It’s actually really easy to monitor the intensity of your workout through your own body cues. You can do that by simply using the talk test. During a moderate-intensity exercise session, you can usually speak one sentence at a time during your activity. In vigorous activity, you can speak maybe three or five words at a time. If you can only get out one word, you’re working way too hard, and if you can speak in full paragraphs, well, that’s light intensity. That’s all you really need to know.

To monitor how many calories were burned.

The only reason that the average everyday exerciser would want to know their heart rate is that it factors into calories burned, which leads me to the fifth reason why people wear fitness trackers. Fitness trackers are not at all accurate for measuring calories burned. Through an investigation done by Stanford Medical School, they found that even the most accurate device was off by 27% in terms of calories burned and the least accurate device that they measured was off by 93%. That’s a huge discrepancy. I think you can see how that could lead to problems for many wearers who are relying on that data to make decisions. The reason they can’t accurately measure calorie burn is that the degree of variability from one person to the next is so large. Fitness trackers use a very general formula based on simple data that you input including your height, your weight, the time you spend exercising, and your heart rate. They use that information to calculate the calories burned. But really, it’s a lot more complex than that. Calories burned factors in things like your height and your weight, of course, but also your resting heart rate compared to your working heart rate and the ratio of the difference between the two; your percentage of muscle compared to your percentage of body fat, your general fitness level compared to your daily activity level, your own metabolic rate at rest, and even your genetics. Those are all things that come into play in calculating the number of calories that you burn during a movement session. Even the very best fitness tracker can’t take all of that into consideration, yet we rely on this information to help us make decisions about how to exercise, to justify how much food we can eat, or how to burn off the food we already did eat.

It’s very easy for people to become obsessed with the data that the tracker provides. Oftentimes, we end up driving ourselves crazy trying to get enough steps or burn enough calories. Initially, we see this obsession as fitness motivation. But remember the data- about one-third of the people who own a fitness tracker will stop wearing it within six months and almost half will stop within a year. Why? The pressure of keeping up and feeling controlled by the fitness tracker just isn’t sustainable or enjoyable.

Principle #6 of Joyful Movement: Stop Relying on External Validation for Fitness Motivation

Is it Fitness Motivation, or is it Obsession?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to self-assess whether your relationship with your fitness tracker is serving you: 

  • What was your original intention when you started wearing the tracker? Was it helpful for that purpose? Did you find it motivating? Are you still wearing it for that purpose or has your focus shifted? 
  • How are you using the data from your app or tracker? Are you assessing the information from a place of curiosity and just noticing? Does the information inspire you to engage in movement as a form of self-care? Or does the data cause you to feel pressured, stressed, or obsessed in any way? Do you allow the tracker to control you?
  • Do you let it decide if you’ve done enough or gone fast enough or worked hard enough or burned enough calories? Are you going to extremes to ensure you hit your targets every day, like staying up late to get your steps in? Or do only certain types of workouts while avoiding others to make sure that you close your rings.
  • Is your tracker a way to monitor the transaction of calories in and calories out? And if it is, I’d say, just throw it out because it doesn’t work anyways. 
  • Is it causing you to become overly competitive in an unhealthy way? 
  • Is your mindset around using your tracker, coming from a place of love and caring for yourself? Or is it coming from a place of fear and needing to fix yourself? If you’re using your tracker because you think you need to fix yourself- that’s a red flag. Remember friends, love always wins. There’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t need fixing.

This post is centered mostly around wearable fitness trackers, but all the same principles apply to the use of calorie counting apps, such as my fitness pal, or even the bathroom scale and weighing yourself often to assess whether your food and movement choices are right. It’s all the same thing. All of it is relying on some external tool or number to validate that you’re doing a “good job” and it’s all just diet culture in different forms.  I think it’s safe to say that in general, these trackers might be interfering with experiencing joyful movement, and will not result in long-lasting fitness motivation.

Principle #6 of Joyful Movement: Stop Relying on External Validation for Fitness Motivation

The Only Tracker You Really Need- and it’s Free!

I’ve got good news: the only tracker you really need, you’ve already got it. And it’s free! The tool is your body and the app is the process of attunement. Attunement is simply the process of tapping into your body’s own signals and cues and using them to guide your movement and eating choices. As I mentioned earlier with the talk-test, your body has its own way of telling you whether you’re working hard enough. The other cue your body sends is just your mental state. How you feel in your mind. Are you feeling stressed out and maybe needing something simple and low-key today? Are you feeling happy and inspired? Maybe you wanna dance around your kitchen. Maybe you’re angry and need to throw a kettlebell around, or maybe you’re just spent and you need some restorative yoga.


No app can possibly assess all these. But your body can. By scanning your body and noticing how you feel from head to toe, and asking what would feel best for you and your body today. Attunement means trusting your body to know what it needs and allowing it to set the pace. It means feeling empowered with the knowledge that you know your body best, and that you can make the best choice. Attunement is choosing what’s in your highest good and saying, no thanks to the things that don’t serve you. 

If you are ready to take the step into joyful movement, Radiant Vitality is here to help you on your journey! Radiant Vitality is a weight-neutral fitness and body image coaching service whose mission is to equip you with practical and sustainable tools to heal your relationship with exercise, food and your body. Contact Radiant Vitality today to learn more! 

Woman exercising with body positive personal trainer in Goderich Ontario