The American College of Sports Medicine puts wearable trackers as one of the hottest fitness trends last year, and it is anticipated that this trend will continue. As with the rest of our tech-infused lives, tech now meets up with fitness, in ways that can be good, bad, or indifferent. At least these little guys that you wear on your wrist do not seem to induce as much frustration as our larger tech items often do! But, I digress.
You cannot argue that Fitbits and other devices like them are wildly popular. But, do they actually make for any long-term behavior change when it comes to moving around more? Many studies have been done, and the jury is still out. However, when it comes down to it, I hate to say, the answer at this point is probably no.
Mega studies that endeavor to find out how long people use the tracker say that the average time is 6 months. Other studies show that, after the six months (or even longer in some studies), most people return to their old ways. Many studies add in other dynamics to see if it changes the impact of the wearable. Things like health coaching, creating a game to make things competitive, or even paying participants for milestone achievements of steps taken. The same thing happened. Once the study was over, so did their extra steps. One study done at the University of Pittsburgh, found that the group using a fitness tracker actually ended with less weight loss than the group not using it.
So, what’s the good news here? There are some things that may be a bit harder to actually quantify, which may be why many of the studies can’t catch it.
Here I want to reference Michelle Segar, Ph.D., a motivational and behavioral sustainability scientist. She has done a lot of research on motivation, including the effect of fitness trackers. She notes in her book, “No Sweat, How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness”, that many of the people she works with are not aware that moving more during the day impacts fitness and health. There is still the commonly held belief that, if you want to get fit, you have to go to a gym. Here’s where trackers can be a good thing. They can raise awareness of movement during the day, and may encourage more of it. Then if you throw in a bit of information about how much movement can create health and well being benefits, and it may all work together to make a change in people.
The other thing that Segar notes from her research is that trackers alone, without some pre-existing desire to change behavior, do not actually work. This would be the equivalent of buying a treadmill in the hopes that seeing it sit around will motivate you to use it! Having a tracker on your wrist may be a bit of a reminder, but without readiness to use it as such, it is unlikely that there will be a big change in behavior. The bottom line is that you still have choices to make, based on what you decide is important to you.
What does all this point to?
Yes, gadgets are cool. They can be useful if they are part of a plan that you have before you start wearing it. The device is a tool, not a motivator in itself. And, the final point: What all the research is showing is that an extrinsic motivator like just putting the tracker on your wrist, getting paid, or joining a game challenge, do not work to create lasting behavior change. What does make a difference is something inside. The intrinsic motivation, the big why, that drives you and keeps on driving you, to make a change.
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