While walking down the street or looking around the gym, it’s inevitable to see others looking at their wrists — chances are equally likely that they’re checking the time along with their daily step count or heart rate on their Fitbit.
Wearable fitness technology was ranked the top fitness trend of 2019 by the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal. Yet, while these trending devices can serve as initial motivators to get active, there are mixed opinions regarding their effectiveness in changing individuals’ habits for the long term.
“If people want to use them — and that’s the big ‘if’ — then it provides a self-monitoring tool,” said Jess Gorzelitz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Kinesiology who focuses on the physical activity habits of various populations.
If people think they’re not staying active or sitting too much, then one of the biggest advantages of this kind of technology is that they can get feedback on their natural tendencies, she added.
Natalie Hammer, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, started using a Fitbit about six months ago with the hope it would help her be more conscious of her health and exercise.
After she started wearing her Fitbit, Hammer was able to recognize that she felt better on days she was more active.
“I was super active without even realizing it,” she said. “It’s good to know that I can be active and healthy even doing small activities.”
Wearables are small devices that are either worn or attached to the body and can provide feedback on a variety of health or fitness measurements like steps, sleep or heart rate.
The technology is easily accessible — an abundance of products beyond well-known brands like Fitbit and Apple Watches exist to meet all individuals’ needs and budgets.
One-third of the global population use a mobile app or fitness tracking device to monitor their health, according to a 2016 study by Statista.
Wearables can provide both an incentive to get active and positive affirmation in one’s increased activity. While they’re frequently marketed as a motivator to get fit, it’s important to recognize that they’re only part of the process of being active.
“People get really excited about a new technology and think it’s going to make them lose twenty pounds and it’s a super inflated expectation of what this small device can do,” Gorzelitz said. “Sometimes people fall off the wagon with wearing it because it’s not a cure-all.”
Thirty percent of users stop wearing their device after six months, and half of those who ever owned a wearable stopped using it entirely, according to a commercial study from 2014.
Hammer was already motivated to be active, but wearing her Fitbit was an additional push to regularly exercise.
“I know that sounds so stupid, but just kind of having that positive affirmation helped me see how much I was doing versus just laying down and watching Netflix. Like, ‘Oh you’re actually getting active,’” she shared.
While these trackers may be key to staying motivated toward being healthier, it’s not always enough to sustain new habits over time.
Wearables are a source of external motivation — people are motivated to reach a certain number of steps or an increased heart rate for a certain amount of time.
Internal motivation, on the other hand, is taking part in an activity for its own sake.
Gorzelitz said you could argue that people who are internally motivated are more likely to succeed in the long-term.
“If you’re only getting your steps to win or to rack up the step count, you’re not necessarily focused on the purpose of physical activity,” she explained.
Being physically active has plenty of benefits beyond staying in shape — it’s good for your mood, good for your sleep and helps you focus.
She clarified that people are motivated by different things, and there is variation in one’s ability to keep up with a new habit purely from an external motivator.
Research shows that physical activity that makes people feel good in the moment motivates more than a big-picture goal like losing weight or improving one’s health, an article in ACSM Health and Fitness Journal reported.
Hammer explained that when she’s doing something active that she enjoys, the tracker almost becomes irrelevant.
“When I’m hiking I don’t really care [about my tracker]. I’ll look at it when I’m done and be like, ‘Oh, that was a great hike!’” she said.
But when the motive for exercise is different — like when she is working out — she checks her tracker more frequently because she just wants to be done.
Trackers can increase participation in an activity — but they can simultaneously take the joy out of the activity because it undermines one’s internal motivation, according to a recent study.
Tracking one’s activity puts the emphasis on the outcome instead of the experience. This can turn the activity into a chore, removing the natural pleasure one gets from taking part in it, and ultimately leading to a decrease in participation over time.
Instead of focusing on the numbers, paying attention to how one feels when they’re exercising can actually serve as a better motivator to stay active because it makes the activity enjoyable.
“[A tracker] is not going to completely change your life unless you want it to,” Gorzelitz said.
Making the Device Work for You
Sometimes knowing exactly how active one is on a given day can be disheartening when you realize how little you’ve done, Hammer said.
“That was maybe a downside because I was definitely a little harder on myself,” she added.
Gorzelitz, who herself has had a Fitbit since 2011, said her advice to individuals considering investing in a wearable is to think of the device as a tool. If people want to increase their activity they should set realistic goals so they don’t get discouraged and then use the technology to track how they’re doing in reaching them.
“Some people if they don’t like using their trackers or they don’t like the numbers they get it can cause people to be insufficiently active — it can be demoralizing. Like, ‘Wow, I’m only getting 1,000 steps and I need 10,000?’” she said. “There is a risk that it can turn people completely off of physical activity.”
She emphasized that even if 10,000 daily steps are recommended, 7,500 would be better than nothing.
“At the end of the day we should all be physically active and if these trackers serve as a tool, [then] it’s an important behavior change tool we can use to help people,” Gorzelitz said.