Activity trackers are all the rage these days with brands like Nike, Polar, Fitbit and Jawbone all weighing in to get people off their couches and counting their steps. But is this activity-tracking trend really making us more active, or does it simply add to our obsession with tracking every minute detail of our daily lives?
In 1982 Finish company Polar revolutionised performance tracking by introducing the world’s first wireless heart rate monitor, paving the way for the myriad of activity trackers we know today. While performance tracking has been an important part of training for serious athletes and sports enthusiasts, social media and smartphone proliferation has created the perfect environment for these devices to reach the general public. In fact, according to a recent report in Forbes, one in every ten American adults currently owns a fitness tracking device.
Activity trackers come in different shapes and sizes with different features, from tracking the number of steps you’ve taken during the day to how well you’ve slept at night, but they all have one goal, to get our increasingly sedentary society to start moving by making being active fun. Most of these devices have some sort of accompanying app that tracks and rewards your progress, often turning being active into a game, as Nike has successfully done with an earlier iteration of its popular Nike Fuel app – run 10 miles and you’ve conquered both the Empire State building and the steps around Taj Mahal while burning off an ice cream sundae – the app then allowed you to send virtual post cards to your friends on social media to brag about your achievements.
The challenge for these trackers in achieving the goal of getting people more active is longevity – according to Forbes 42 percent of those who own fitness trackers stop using them within the first six months – this despite the devices drawing attention to your activity levels, and encouraging you to get up and move about if you’ve been sitting around for too long. Analyst Matt Powell from researchers NPD Group posits that one of the reasons for this high rate of abandonment is novelty.
“I suspect that once early users determine how far 10,000 steps is in real life, they stop bothering to use the device,” says Powell.
However, the success (or failure) of these devices might be a little more complex than just the novelty of counting steps wearing off. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that current fitness tracking devices don’t employ sufficient behavioural change techniques (BCTs) to make them viable in the long run, and that being able to share stats on social media simply isn’t enough a motivator for long term use. According to the study’s authors if these devices are to actually benefit the wearer, manufacturers will have to look at more established BCTs such as active self-monitoring.
Despite all of the hype and skepticism about activity trackers, anything that will help get our increasingly obese society off the couch and walking around the block is a good thing – and while keeping that up is a major challenge, it’s a start.