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Are Daily Streaks Hurting Your Progress?

Fitbit, Apple, Peloton. What do these multi-billion dollar tech companies have in common? Besides having the power to shift fitness mentality throughout the industry with their programming and app structures, each company features some sort of daily goal, streak, or accomplishment in which a user is incentivized to complete. So what’s the big deal? Ask those who’ve ridden the streak highs and gotten up past the 50-100 day mark with step goals, run miles, Peloton rides, and so on. In today’s blog, we’ll talk about how what may seem like a healthy habit on the outside could become an unhealthy obsession on the inside.

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🤔 Why Use Streaks?

To start, let's define what kind of streaks we are referring to. In today's blog, a streak will be used in the context of achieving something for multiple days at a time, whether that be a continuous sequence or a chain of successful accomplishments. It will indicate that a specific activity has been consistently performed without interruption or failure over a consecutive number of days. The length a streak is continued for is determined by the number of days that the determined activity has been completed successfully, with the goal being to extend the streak as long as possible.

Streaks often serve as motivational tools to encourage individuals to maintain consistency and build discipline in their habits or goals. After all, a body in motion stays in motion. You are less likely to skip a day of running, for example, if you have a 30-day streak, as compared to just 3-4 days. Individuals may even find themselves getting outside their comfort zones simply to continue their streaks. Take these consumers, for example;

Sourced From Peloton:

“I get up before 4:00 AM every day, before the rest of the world wakes up, to get a workout in and make sure I don’t need to spend any time during the day worrying about losing my streak.”

“Anytime I walk the dog, I put on an outdoor walk activity—both for the music and for my streak!”

Sourced From Apple:

“Three rings: Move, Exercise, Stand. One goal: Close them every day. It’s such a simple and fun way to live a healthier day that you’ll want to  do it all the time. That’s the idea behind the Activity app on Apple Watch.”

“When you hit your personal bests or reach significant milestones, you’ll  receive awards that fill the digital trophy case in the Fitness app on  your iPhone.”

Sourced From The Verge. Discussing Fitbit users anticipation for a previously used Fitbit feature (streaks) coming back to devices after being removed for a short period of time:

“When the Fitbit app relaunched with a new design last month, some users were dismayed to find that their step streaks had disappeared. Now, Google — which owns Fitbit — says it’s taking user feedback into consideration and bringing the feature back. “

“After “seeing the outpour of love,” step streaks will be returning to the iOS version of the app. Google also says it will be bringing step streaks to Android as well” (3 Victoria Song, The Verge, 2023)

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🚫 How Streaks Can Hurt Your Progress

The rising popularity and prominence of activity streaks in the fitness industry are undeniable. And to the inexperienced fitness goers, along with skilled marketers behind the scenes, this trend is a good thing. And from the outside looking in, people are getting and staying fit. So what is the big deal? While streaks can be useful in promoting consistency and motivation, they can also have negative consequences for one's mental and physical health.

Let’s start with burnout. This is a term we’ve all most likely heard in the office setting when referring to working non-stop on a project without ample break times. The same premise can be used for physical activity. Prioritizing streaks can make it challenging to take breaks or adapt to changing circumstances. This inflexibility can eventually lead to burnout or exhaustion, as individuals push themselves relentlessly to maintain the streak without considering their well-being or other important aspects of their lives. Getting sick, being injured, or having a night of poor or inadequate sleep are just three reasons why an individual would ordinarily be well within reason to take a break from activity and let their body recover. But with the social pressures of a high score streak, the same individual is more likely to push through and workout, adopting an “All or nothing” or “No pain, no gain” mindset. In reality, a rest day would have been the most progress-inducing activity they could have done.

Trying to maintain a streak can also lead to an unhealthy obsession with fitness. For many, streaks can create excessive pressure and anxiety, as individuals become overly focused on not breaking the said streak rather than enjoying the activity at hand. In the same light, perfectionist tendencies can arise, causing distress if a streak is interrupted, leading to feelings of failure or disappointment. Take Apple's very own user forum, with nearly 400 frustrated user reports of activity streaks being broken and interrupted, inadvertently causing frustration, stress, and anxiety to the end user.

Breaking a streak, whether due to circumstances beyond control, intentional rest days, or an app glitch in the case of Apple, can cause guilt and anxiety. Users may feel a sense of failure or disappointment, even when it's entirely normal to have breaks or interruptions. This emotional response can negatively impact mental health and create an unhealthy relationship with the activity and the idea of rest days themselves.

Take this article from The Verge, explaining how hard it is to use smart fitness devices without feeling a sense of urgency about streaks and not being able to take a much-needed pause when life gets in the way.

“Unfortunately, most wearables fail at giving you a break, even when it’s justified. It’s simply not built into their programming.”

“Fitbit, Garmin, and every other fitness tracker under the sun also use gamification as a motivational tool. While it can feel amazing when you’re in the zone, it can ironically be demotivating when you break a streak for reasons outside your control. And the longer the streak, the more demotivating it becomes when you inevitably break it.”

But besides the obvious mental stressors that can form due to streak counting, how about the physical aspect? When you work out, especially during intense activities that involve resistance training or intense physical exertion, small muscle tears occur in your muscle fibers. These tears are commonly referred to as micro-tears or microtrauma. We feel these muscle tears in the form of soreness, usually 24-48 hours after the activity. This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). While this soreness is completely normal, it’s important to note that without giving your body time to rest, these micro-tears will not have ample time to properly repair and thus grow (i.e., building muscle).

Working out when sore from a previous activity is not the issue at this point; in fact, doing so may ease the previous soreness felt. Instead, it is the continued prolonging of muscle repair that becomes the problem. Not to mention, when the body is sore, it will take any shortcut it can to make repairing the body a priority. So that workout you perform after being sore for days back-to-back, will not be as effective. And you may even end up injuring yourself by unintentionally using improper form in order to push past the soreness. This is something I have seen firsthand in my club: members feel like they “need to workout” but are not able to put 100% effort into the movements at hand due to muscle fatigue.


🆕 Streak Alternatives

After making the case against streaks, it’s worth noting that there is a better way to view your progress and strive for achievements. Instead of focusing solely on maintaining an unbroken streak, it can be more beneficial to adopt a balanced and sustainable approach to fitness. This means setting realistic goals that align with your overall well-being rather than just pushing yourself to simply tick off a box. By shifting the focus from streaks to sustainable habits, you allow yourself flexibility and the freedom to adapt your routine to your changing needs and circumstances. 

Engage in healthy activities because they are good for you, not because of a streak. This new perspective can encourage a healthier mindset that values quality over quantity, where each workout or activity is an opportunity to enjoy and engage in meaningful movement rather than just a means to an end. Focus on fitness consistency, rather than an unbroken chain. This is something that is enforced at my club. Where members are restricted to 5 classes in a row before a 2 day break must be taken. This strict approach ensures members are taking rest time from the gym and also allowing their bodies time to recover.

👋 So Long, Streaks

While streaks can be useful in promoting consistency and motivation, they can also have negative consequences for one's mental and physical health. It's essential to approach streaks with a balanced mindset, emphasizing self-care and flexibility. Understand that occasional breaks or interruptions are normal and healthy. Prioritize your well-being rather than becoming fixated on maintaining a streak at the expense of the reason behind the streak itself, which is to be healthy.

This post was originally written for Nivati, the employee mental health platform. You can read the blog post on the Nivati blog here.


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