In the last decade or so, fitness trackers and apps have become increasingly more popular. Companies such as Fitbit, Apple, Garmin, Jawbone, and Misfit have all created wearable fitness trackers with advanced technology to monitor step counts, heart rates, altitudes, sleep patterns, water and food intake, and much more. All this data is provided to the user to increase their awareness of behaviour patterns that influence health, with the main purpose being to increase physical activity levels.
Based on the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, adults should be acquiring 10,000 steps per day, or 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity per week. Basic fitness trackers monitor steps, while the more advanced can determine “active minutes”, and the even more advanced can track exercise intensity. As it is well documented that there are many health benefits associated with higher physical activity levels, measuring exercise intensity would seem to be an ideal indicator of health.
How does a fitness tracker work to improve health?
Using a fitness tracker is not like taking a medication that reduces blood pressure or regulates blood sugars. Rather, it is a tool meant to increase a person’s motivation to incorporate healthy behaviours into his or her daily life. To do this, developers have taken into consideration components of psychology and behaviour change theories, such as self-regulation, goal setting, and social support. For example, fitness trackers improve self-regulation through feedback mechanisms, relaying information about the number of steps a person has taken, or how much activity they are doing. This increases self-awareness of how much (or how little) physical activity is being done on a day-to-day basis.
Self-awareness or recognizing that there is something that can be improved is one of the first steps in behaviour change. Little reminders to get up and walk or drink a glass of water are other feedback mechanisms that are incorporated into the trackers and apps. These insights into behaviour patterns can also motivate the user to do more physical activity to reach a goal.
Many fitness trackers and apps allow you to set personalized goals or targets. When you have something to work toward, motivation increases, especially when the long-term goal is broken down into a smaller, realistic, and attainable short-term goals. Take, for instance, a person who walks 2000 steps per day. It is unrealistic that they will immediately reach the goal of 10 000 steps per day. However, if they aim to increase their step count by a smaller amount, such as 1000 or 2000 steps per day, they will be more likely to accomplish their goal, further enhancing their motivation to continue.
New fitness tracker technologies have also incorporated a social aspect into their programs, allowing users to set up a social network of like-minded people. These people can compete against each other (a big motivator for a lot of people) or support and encourage each other to continue. A social network, or relatedness, is one of the factors contributing to increased physical activity levels. When information such as daily steps are shown in a group, a person becomes more accountable because you cannot dispute hard data.
How well do fitness trackers work to improve health?
This is a tricky question with minimal long-term data to back it up. One study found that when a fitness tracker was used consistently along with coaching motivators and attainable goals, the wearer could increase their step count by more than one mile per day. On the other hand, a few early studies suggest that fitness trackers do not significantly improve health or fitness, even with monetary incentives. Another study found that one third of people stopped wearing their fitness trackers after six months, and half of users eventually stopped altogether. So, what is the reason for these conflicting findings?
One reason could be that the earlier studies on the effectiveness of fitness trackers had participants using less-advanced models of fitness trackers. The trackers measured daily steps, without taking into account personalized goals or the social factors involved in promoting physical activity. The study that found positive results incorporated automated motivational messages and the ability to adjust daily goals. These advances in the technology target more than just the self-regulating component of behaviour change.
So, if trackers are becoming more advanced and user-friendly, then why do people stop using them?
INTRINSIC VS. EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION
At the end of the day, behaviour change comes down to having the motivation to make a change and maintain the behaviour, and the type of motivation can play into the longevity of that behaviour change.
Extrinsic, or external, motivation refers to a motivating factor that exists outside of the person itself, such as a punishment or a reward. In the case of physical activity, an external reward might be praise from family and friends. This can be extremely motivating in the beginning, but participation will usually ween if there are no other motivators. Intrinsic, or internal motivation, is a motivating factor that exists within the person, such as satisfaction or enjoyment. These activities are done because the person finds joy in doing them. The Self-Determination Theory states that motivation exists on a spectrum and the more internal the motivator, the more likely you are to be willing to keep up with the behaviour change in the long term.
When it comes to fitness trackers, most people are motivated by the numbers on the screen, which is an external motivator. This is great for achieving short term results, but it is unlikely to last in the long term. In the case of an individual completing a rehabilitation program post-injury, a tracker, such as the BREG Flex, might be a good motivator for the shorter time it would be used post-injury. People who have been using fitness trackers for a long time to improve their health often get internal satisfaction from accomplishing their goals or completely enjoy the activity that they are doing because it makes them feel good.
The Bottom Line
Fitness trackers are a great tool to get people moving in the beginning stages of lifestyle change. They provide insights, feedback and wellness tips, help with goal setting, and offer social networks. However, to really improve health and maintain a healthier lifestyle the real work needs to be done by the wearer. Overcoming barriers, finding that intrinsic motivation, and actually acting on intentions cannot be done solely by a piece a technology.