The Garmin outage made me realise my fitness routine was an unhealthy obsession

Modern life bombards us with statistics at every turn – but what happens when the numbers start to hold too much importance?

I’d never given much thought to the power my smartwatch possessed – or the control it had over me – until GPS and smartwatch brand Garmin’s global outage last week. The manufacturer was reportedly being held to ransom for $10million by Russian hackers, and a blackout of its services had officially begun.

It wasn’t long before I realised something was amiss. Not just with the app, but with how much I had come to rely on it.

A regular refresh saw a glowing yellow box labelled ‘server maintenance’ appear on my screen. Two hours of refreshing later, I turned to internet forums for answers – alongside what looked to be half of the world’s fitness community.

Up until this point, keeping constant tabs on my step count, sleep cycle and workouts seemed like a perfectly standard form of procrastination. I’d regularly check the app upwards of 15 times a day, filled with a warm sense of satisfaction as my step total and calorie burn slowly increased.

I was hooked on the dopamine and endorphin rush that comes not only from the workout itself, but from the distance logged, the records broken and the virtual pats on the back from members of the workout community.

As an avid runner (and born-again cyclist courtesy of coronavirus), exercise has long been a core part of my day-to-day routine. From a lengthy walking commute to weekends filled with high-octane hockey matches and half marathon endurance prep, there seemed no better reason to invest in a Garmin smartwatch.

As it turns out, the seemingly insignificant numbers generated by those mini-computers we wear on our wrists aren’t always quite so trivial.

During lockdown, running became a form of continuity, discipline and escapism. Taking full advantage of my daily government sanctioned outdoor exercise, I saw my run mileage and step-count creep ever-upwards.

Joining virtual run challenges and winning virtual distance awards was the closest I could get to the thrill of competitive sport and outdoor races.

Beating the numbers was now my main goal – and inevitably, there comes a point where that’s not always possible and my desire to break my own records was a slow setup for failure.

On paper, all the Garmin blackout really meant was three days without my activity being logged and synced to my favourite workout apps.

In reality, no longer having access to up-to-the-minute data about my own body left me feeling on edge and riddled with anxiety.

It was less a case of ‘if it isn’t on Strava, did it even happen?’ more ‘I can’t see the information breakdown required to alleviate this constant feeling of unease’. I’d become so reliant on the figures that without precise numbers, calories equated to guilt.

I began to realise just how dependent I’d become on drip-fed statistics; the feeling of power that came from knowing the calories I’d burned, seeing the gradual and sustained drop in my resting heart rate

During the outage, I continued to log activity using my smartwatch, however, the basic information displayed on my screen meant my motivation had shifted.

There was no more meticulous in-app data analysis, instead, the occasional glance to keep track of my step count without the need to open my phone every five minutes. It felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted.

With both the Garmin app and running taken off the table – thanks to an Achilles injury I suffered at the same time – I was momentarily jolted out of the data-driven daze I’d been in.

I began to realise just how dependent I’d become on drip-fed statistics; the feeling of power that came from knowing the calories I’d burned, seeing the gradual and sustained drop in my resting heart rate.

My healthy routine had become an unhealthy obsession.

Then, just as quickly as the app had stopped syncing, a slew of new notifications popped up on my phone screen. ‘Affected systems are being restored and we expect to return to normal operation over the next few days’ noted Garmin in a statement following the attack.

I felt a pang of excitement at first, but this was followed by an anxious knot in my stomach. I could either choose to revert back to my lockdown habits, or continue with the healthier attitude I’d adopted.

For me, the outage was a wake-up call to reassess my relationship with statistics, and the app itself. Although I continue to use Garmin Connect sparingly, my approach now is far more balanced.

The app being down was like holding up a mirror to my bad habits, and what it goes to highlight is just how easily the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle can spiral into something altogether more sinister and destructive.

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