Fitness Trackers Can’t Do the Heavy Lifting of Getting in Shape

a couple looking at their fitness trackers

Some of today’s hottest items in consumer technology are fitness trackers, such as the FitBit and Jawbone, which are typically worn on the wrist and are advertised as being able to measure a person’s steps, sleep and more.

Proponents of these gadgets claim they spur wearers to greater levels of activity and health. But critics have challenged the $50 billion industry, pointing out that many trackers are expensive, used by people who don’t really need extra help to become healthier, and may not accurately measure the things they claim to.

According to University of Pennsylvania researchers who have studied this growing health trend, the effectiveness of a fitness tracker comes down to many factors—some related to the technology itself and others with human nature.

“Wearable devices can play a role in promoting healthy behavior, but it’s not as simple as purchasing the device,” says David A. Asch, MD, MBA, Executive Director of the Center for Health Care Innovation at The University of Pennsylvania. “The device needs to accurately measure information about the wearer, and the wearer needs to be given this data in a way that touches them emotionally.”

That could be part of the reason more than half of those who buy a tracker stop using it after a year (one third do so within six months).

Motivation is Key

Another key factor is motivation—to keep the device charged, to keep accessing the data, and to keep using that data to inform everyday decisions. This is easier said than done, thanks to what researchers are now learning about human nature.

“It’s like a New Year’s resolution,” says Kevin G. Volpp, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine and Health Care Management at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “People are often excited about making a fresh start and improving their future selves, but the equilibrium that previously existed comes back. It’s hard to form new habits that crowd out old habits.”

To overcome this tendency to slip backward, fitness trackers should be paired with strategies that truly motivate change. Dr. Asch notes that they could come in many forms—reward, competition, even financial savings—but they must be tied to outside observation.

“As social beings, humans care about what others are doing and what others think of us, so developers can use this to layer motivation into their devices,” Dr. Asch says. “Suppose I sign up my friends to be witnesses to my activity every day. I don’t want to look bad, so I try to take lots of steps. By itself, the tracker probably wouldn’t have caused that behavior. People need witnesses, role models and cheerleaders to keep a new habit going.”

Another approach would be to use teams to make individuals feel accountable to each other. For instance, a fitness group could set a step goal that each member would need to reach to unlock rewards for the group, rather than rewarding only the athletic-minded people.

“The key is that wearable devices will enable improved activity if they’re paired with engagement strategies that increase our motivation,” Dr. Asch says. “The tracker is just the tool. I’m enthusiastic about where they’re going if they can be paired with programs that create social connections to motivate us.”

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