Health & Fitness | December 31, 2021 11:12 am

Is Your Fitness Wearable Giving You a “Nocebo Effect”?

The strange phenomenon can actually augment one's perception of pain

A man wears a fitness tracker in the gym.
This thing got you down? Take a break from looking at it.
Guido Mieth/Unsplash

I’ve been hunkered down with family the last weeks, staying up late to watch movies, drink beers and eat leftover cake from Christmas. My WHOOP stats have not been kind in the morning. Today I received a 38% recovery (well below my average), which indicates that I’m not at my best. As an everyday writer and a runner, I can expect my turns of phrase and turns around around the track to be less sharp than usual.

At least, that’s the premise I accept whenever I see a poor number on the screen. It’s a phenomenon known as “nocebo” — not a pun, but an actual Latin word: “I shall harm” — that refers to an instance where negative feedback makes one less confident about his or her health. A nocebo effect is capable of superseding however someone really feels in a given moment, and even exacerbate symptoms.

In my case, it means that whatever aches or grogginess I register after a big night feel magnified once I receive confirmation that yes, I have aches and grogginess. There have been times, too, where I felt surprisingly okay the morning after a soccer game, or staying up late to work. But once my wearable tells me I should actually feel like shit, I sigh and fall in line accordingly.

To this point, the conversation around health monitors has been largely positive. As day-to-day wear has surged into ubiquity — nearly 60 million Americans own one, and demand has gone up 10% since last year — it’s been customary to laud these devices for their omniscient abilities. They connect civilians to their personal biometrics at a level and consistency that wasn’t even available to Olympians 25 years ago.

In the face of longevity threats like heart disease or present-day threats like respiratory illness, wearable devices are an essential tool. They empower their owners to interrogate their own wellness decisions and investigate how those decisions influence monthly and yearly trends. More information, when processed patiently (and shared routinely with medical experts) is an asset.

But as Tim Culpan points out for Bloomberg, it can also prove overwhelming and unhelpful. “Arbitrary goals served up by an algorithm” and “regular notifications telling you that you’re stressed, tired, fit, or simply ‘unproductive’” can psychologically increase feelings of inadequacy and physically increase perception of pain.

He cites a useful example for the latter: some athletes who repeatedly enter concussion protocol actually begin to exhibit “poorer neurocognitive performance” the second they’re reminded of how many times they’ve experienced head trauma. It’s a sort of nudge in the wrong direction, which discourages positive thinking.

Obviously, it’s useful to know how alcohol or stress can impact performance the next day. For those who work out frequently, it can be a healthy cue for taking the foot off the pedal. Still, a poor recovery score ideally shouldn’t be received as a death sentence for the following day. Next time your watch points out that you didn’t get enough sleep or steps in, don’t beat yourself up.

And if you suspect your numbers might come in a bit lower than usual, say, during the week after Christmas, feel free to “lose” your charger for a few days. You can pick it all back up again in the new year.