Activity trackers: Worth the investment?

Nearly 50 million wearable activity tracking devices (e.g., Fitbit, Apple watch, etc.) were shipped in 2015, and that number is expected to grow to 125 million by 2019. These wearable devises were also rated as the number 1 top fitness trend in 2017 by over 1,800 health and fitness professionals. But, are these devices actually successful at motivating consumers to live healthy, active lifestyles in the long-term? In other words, at anywhere from $100 to $1000+ a pop, is wearable technology really worth the investment?

Some estimate that half of people who purchase any kind of activity tracker stop using them. In fact, a study, published in the October 2016 issue of The Lancelet Diabetes & Endocrinology, found that not only did wearing a Fitbit for a year not improve health outcomes, but by the end of the year only 10% of participants still wore it. A 10-50% retention rate may not seem like a lot, but compare that to the 20% retention rate that gyms experience on average and we start to realize that maybe it’s not the activity tracker itself that’s the problem.

The real problem: sustaining motivation

The problem lies not in the tools we use to live active lifestyles, but rather in our ability to stay motivate to live an active lifestyle over the long-term.

One common pattern I see goes like this: Emily lives a pretty average, sedentary lifestyle. She works a desk job, has two kids, and is somewhat overweight. While her weight isn’t clinically a problem yet, she knows that if she continues down the path she’s on, she will end up at risk for a host of chronic health problems. So, to motivate her to be more active, she buys an activity tracker to count her steps as well as a gym membership. For the first month, Emily goes for a 30-40 minute walk at least 3 times a week and increases her average daily steps from 4,500 to 7,000. She’s only been to the gym a handful of times, but knows she should go more. Emily feels good about increasing her average number of steps per day, but has only lost 1.5 pounds this month, which she finds discouraging. All-in-all, exercising and keeping track of her steps feels like a chore. Soon, Emily’s job responsibilities begin to pick up and Emily faces an extremely busy two weeks at work, including several days of travel. After those two weeks, Emily is exhausted and has lost motivation to exercise for her weight and health. She retires her activity tracker to her nightstand drawer and cancels her gym membership.

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If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. But, while this is the case for so many people, it doesn’t have to be. We are engrained to view exercise as a means to an end — a way to lose weight; a way to maintain a healthy weight; a way to improve health outcomes 10, 20, 30 years from now. Unfortunately, this view also almost always takes the fun out of exercise and makes it feel more like a chore — something we should do, something we have to do, not something we want to do. Adding to the displeasure, when exercise is viewed this way, trackers and measurements can actually undermine intrinsic motivation and make exercise even less enjoyable. This is because focusing our attention on output takes our attention away from the immediate enjoyable aspects of the activity and makes the activity feel more like work.

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In other words, the key to sustained motivation over the long-term isn’t a primary emphasis on weight loss and health outcomes (i.e., delayed gratification) or even on how many steps you take each day. The key to sustained motivation is an emphasis on the immediate benefits of exercise that make it fun and enjoyable. Some of these immediate benefits include increased energy, greater productivity and creativity, and improved sleep, mood, and focus. There are also immediate social benefits to exercise such as the opportunity to spend quality time with friends or family. Going for a bike ride sounds like a lot more fun when you’re able to enjoy it with your spouse and kids rather than when you’re tracking exactly how many miles you go or how many calories you burn because you know you need to exercise.

Using activity trackers to enhance, rather than detract from, your experience

So where do activity trackers come into play in all of this? Most of the time for most people, using an activity tracker alone will not keep your motivation alive and could even be counterproductive. That doesn’t mean activity trackers are useless, though, and when used along with strategies that encourage healthy lifestyle changes, they can definitely enhance the experience.

Here’s a few ways to use activity trackers to enhance immediate enjoyment, and therefore sustained motivation over the long-term:

  • Engage in healthy competition with yourself and/or others — many activity trackers now offer “challenges” that allow you to compete with yourself and/or others by encouraging you to increase the frequency of your workouts, the distance you go, or the calories you burn. You can also enter into your own “competitions” with friends or family members.
  • Achieve short-term goals — you can use your activity tracker to help you achieve short-term goals like walking 5 miles this week, running a 5k, or completing your longest bike ride yet. It’s important though to not let these goals detract from the immediate enjoyment of the exercise. Don’t beat yourself up if you fall behind. I suggest setting new short-term goals frequently and making them both specific and time-bound. For example, your goal may be to take 10,000 steps every day this week. Next week, your goal may be to go for three 30-minute jogs. Setting a goal that is too broad, like that you want to take more steps in general or that you want to take 10,000 steps everyday for the rest of eternity, can be counterproductive.
  • Refer to measurements taken by your activity tracker as an afterthought — don’t worry about how many steps you’ve taken or calories you’ve burned every 5 minutes. Do what feels good for your body, then see what you’ve accomplished at the end of your workout. Keep in mind that living a healthy lifestyle is more about how you feel overall than about how tough your workouts are.
  • Keep yourself and your social group accountable — you can also use your activity tracker to help keep both yourself and your workout buddies accountable. Set group goals, like this week we are both (or all) going to take 10,000 steps each day. If you or your friends haven’t reached that goal, then encourage each other to go for a walk or a jog together. Exercising together fosters a sense of community and accomplishment, and serves as an opportunity to spend quality time with each other.
  • Focus on what you’ve accomplished, not what you haven’t — rather than looking at your tracker and thinking, I should’ve done more, think about what you have done and accomplished. Didn’t reach 10,000 steps today, but still did 7,000? That’s ok! Use this as an opportunity to improve next time. Let this motivate you to walk a little further with your dog this weekend – benefiting both you and your dog. Was your goal to run 3 miles today, but you only went 2? Don’t beat yourself up. You still ran 2 miles and that’s an accomplishment. You got out there and got moving — that’s what matters.

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Do you have any other ideas about how you can use your activity tracker to enhance rather than detract from your exercise experience? Let me know in the comments!!

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