Trying to figure out if a wearable fitness device is for you and your personality? Read on below.
As personal trainers, it is easy to monitor our clients’ activities and provide phone and on-line coaching when schedules do not permit one on one physical sessions, for accountability and program development/monitoring at a reduced investment.
Fitness Technology Conundrum (excerpted)
by Amanda Vogel, MA on Jun 16, 2015IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 12, Issue 7, 2015 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc.
How are wearables, health apps and fitness-monitoring devices changing the way you motivate and inspire clients?
If you don’t already have one strapped around your wrist, you probably know someone who does. Smartwatches and wearable activity trackers are stepping up in popularity, and so are fitness-related mobile apps.
Experts predict that fit tech will play a huge role in the future of fitness and wellness. However, as popular as it is, it’s still in its early stages, which lands the fitness industry in a bit of a conundrum. The tech world is already redefining the fitness landscape—mostly from outside our industry. Meanwhile, many fitness pros (who aren’t necessarily early adopters) are jockeying to determine how relevant this technology is for themselves, their clients and their jobs.
As fitness technology advances, so does its integration with everything, or close to everything, we do. Here lies the conundrum. Many fitness pros are behind on their fit tech knowledge and application. A lot of clients and prospects, especially young ones, are farther along. While there will always be a valid argument for “exercise unplugged,” more corners of the industry need to embrace technology, and quickly.
This article explores many important questions about fit tech, such as: How is the influx of wearables and apps reshaping the exercise experience? What about evidence that suggests people abandon their activity trackers after only a few months? Should fitness pros be poking around in clients’ personal data? Finally, with so many fit tech choices, where does one begin?
Is Fit Tech a Motivator or a Distractor?
There’s a lot of buzz about fitness technology as a trend. However, for a trend to be valuable to the fitness industry, it must help people exercise more regularly and effectively. Fit tech does both, but it may also complicate how people feel about working out. If getting off the couch wasn’t enough of a hurdle, now they’ve got to be up to speed with technology, too. “It’s possible that for some, the idea of ‘needing’ a tech tool can be a barrier to getting started, much like ‘needing’ to buy a new pair of running shoes to start a walking program,” says Mark Berman, MD, vice president of health for Mark One Lifestyle Inc. in San Francisco. However, he believes people see tech tools mostly as a means for starting or progressing exercise.
Patrick Jak, MSc, is a coach, trainer, and director of metabolic testing at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego. “Technology may be one more thing to learn, but because apps and devices are so simple in their design (my 3-year-old son can figure out how to use them without any input or guidance), they are less overwhelming for someone who has never exercised in a fitness club or with a trainer,” he says. “It’s also less intimidating and [has] less perceived risk than walking into a crowded gym.”
In fact, technology may bridge the gap for people who would otherwise feel quite anxious about exercise. You could argue that some folks make a foray into fitness entirely because of technology. “For nonexercisers who enjoy technology, fitness tech might just be what they need to get moving,” says France Marien, creator of three fitness apps from Remix Workouts and a certified fitness instructor in Seattle. “For them, the technology is instinctive and already part of their world, so they barely need to ‘learn’ anything new. Fit tech might motivate curious beginners to be more active.”
Jak echoes this thought: “Many who turn to technology in their exercise and nutrition have done so because they use the same technology in many other, if not all, aspects of their lives (i.e., smartphones). Fitness is just the next step for them.”
“Technology creates more choice and alternatives,” says Bryan O’Rourke, MBA, founder and CEO of Integerus Advisors, and president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council in Covington, Louisiana. “[As a result,] there are more convenient, effective and affordable paths to a healthier lifestyle.”
Something else happens when exercise and technology come together. It’s what personal trainer Ted Vickey, MS, senior adviser for disruptive health technologies for Canyon Ranch Institute, who lives in Carlsbad, California, calls a “rebranding of ‘exercise’ to include more daily physical activity.” In other words, trackers illuminate how activity builds up during the day. “Using a device like a fitness tracker that monitors steps is actually helping people see that exercise can be taking a walk, working in the garden or doing daily chores around the house,” says Vickey. For some people, this awareness may quell negative feelings about one of the most daunting steps in adopting a healthier lifestyle: getting started.
“Technology is an engagement tool, and with [engagement] comes awareness,” says Truckee, California–based Darcy Norman, PT, director of the Performance Innovation Team for EXOS. “The awareness leads to education and then . . . motivation to get something started,” he says.
Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, PhD, is a researcher and senior lecturer at Indiana University School of Public Health in Bloomington. “I believe that the 80%–85% of participants who have never engaged in structured fitness programs will benefit from using a tracker . . . to observe and track their daily movement,” she says. “This gradual progression might eventually enhance participation.”
Such a benefit extends beyond the newbie. “I also believe activity trackers are helping fit participants realize they need to get movement outside of a typical structured fitness program,” says Kennedy-Armbruster.
When it comes to helping people get moving, or move more, fitness technology works. However, there’s at least one setback. Research shows that many people toss their activity trackers in a drawer after only a few months. “What we have seen is that the initial engagement . . . dries up very quickly,” says Norman. This is an important consideration for any fitness professional who builds trackers and tracker data into their client services.
Despite a steady increase in fit tech adoption rates, a percentage of users still abandon their activity trackers before very long. Here are some numbers: In the fall of 2013, Endeavour Partners conducted research showing that close to half of consumers ditched their trackers after 6 months (Endeavour 2014a). As of June 2014, that stat had improved to 34% of people tossing their wearables within the same timeframe (Endeavour 2014b).
Still, what’s going on? Tech experts offer various explanations:
Perceived value is low. There’s a wide range of trackers out there, some of which provide more perceived and actual value than others, especially in the area of data collection (steps taken, heart rate and/or calories burned). Some people give up on technology for training because they don’t understand the data or how it’s relevant when the novelty of counting steps wears off. “They need additional support in analysis or [other] motivators,” says Jak, who’s been providing technology-based training programs since 2002. Tracker feedback that’s overtly relevant to positive behavior change and goal achievement will have the most perceived value.
“Data for data’s sake doesn’t move the needle for population health,” says Norman. “It’s about connecting people to benefits, not data. When you use data to connect someone with attaining something, whether it’s a tiny first step or a larger goal, then data becomes a valuable part of a sustainable solution.”
This might be one reason why we see existing wearables and health/fitness apps from different companies join forces to create meaningful self-monitoring experiences. For example, dozens of apps, including MyFitnessPal and MapMyRun, sync to Fitbit® trackers. Incidentally, more than 59% of consumers say they connect their smart wearable/activity tracker to third-party applications and services (Endeavour 2014b).
“Honeymoon” phase ends. Adherence versus attrition may also depend on what motivates someone beyond the short-term. Maybe the novelty wears off. “When users keep doing the same thing and keep getting the same data, the newness is gone,” says Marien.
“As with any new tool for fitness/wellness programming, there is usually an 8- to 12-week period where you learn and enjoy the new tool,” says Kennedy-Armbruster. “Then it’s time to put it down and try to see if you can change on your own. Those who keep tracking are usually ‘numbers people’ who enjoy learning more about their ‘patterns’ and also need the motivation. The trackers that coach and educate are the ones that people often continue to use. For example, my activity tracker gives me regular feedback about how I compare to people my age, and I enjoy that. If I take it off, I won’t get any coaching or information about myself on a daily basis.”
Accuracy is unreliable. When it comes to abandonment rates, accuracy is also a concern. In a recent study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise, researchers found that activity trackers were good at estimating number of steps taken when subjects were walking, running and using an elliptical machine (Stackpool et al. 2015). However, the trackers didn’t fare as well when subjects—20 men and women, aged 18–44—performed sports movements like ladder drills and basketball free throws. As for calories burned, the difference between measured and predicted values ranged from 13% to 60%, with some devices overpredicting and others underpredicting. These findings could explain why seeking reinforcement from an activity tracker might sometimes frustrate users. No one wants to crush a tough workout (that isn’t based on steps taken) only to have a tracker offer up metrics along the lines of “meh.”
Marien has observed the reverse with her clients, as well. “It is very difficult to keep track of the quality of the movement,” she says. “One of my clients sees his wearable go through the roof when he practices piano.”
Trackers become obsolete. The fit tech space is young, and a tracker that’s a year or two old could already be obsolete, making it especially tricky to conduct research. For example, a study published in a 2015 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association found that smartphone apps were as accurate at tracking activities as wearables (Case et al. 2015). However, according to a review of the study from Wired, most of the devices used in the JAMA study were at least 1–2 years old; more sophisticated devices were already on the market (Rose 2015). “Most of the behavioral research lags behind because it’s harder to collect [data] over time when the trackers keep changing,” notes Kennedy-Armbruster. “The published research is often out of date because [studies have used] trackers that no longer exist. Much of the tracker research has been done by the companies who sell them. They have the best data and often don’t publish it for competition reasons.”
With technology changing so rapidly, some people may feel their device could be doing more. “Many who stop using their devices or apps after a few months have hit the limits of their technology,” says Jak. “Most devices and apps are still not fully automated and require some manual entry. Others provide limited features, which require additional apps and, as a result, redundant data. This limitation can be a huge barrier.”
Features fail. Limited battery life is another potential bother. If you’re avidly tracking steps, calories burned or hours slept, breaking the count for a recharge is a buzz kill. Plus, a lot of trackers not only lack style; they’re also ugly.
Fit Tech Attrition: Does It Stymie Programs?
Does activity tracker attrition affect whatever exercise program might have been ignited? Or do people quit fitness technology because they quit exercise first? Mark Berman, MD, vice president of health for Mark One Lifestyle Inc. in San Francisco, sheds some light. “Attrition with wearables is a very real problem, but ever since ‘exercising’ became a thing to do, people have started and stopped exercising,” he says. “The real question is whether the accessibility of wearables makes the stop part of the cycle shorter and whether the net effect is to empower and excite more people to exercise more often. From a behavioral perspective, we would expect wearables to be a net empowerment tool; they should facilitate a net increase in exercise. The available data supports this idea, but it’s still a very young research question.”
Case, M.A. et al. 2015. Accuracy of smartphone applications and wearable devices for tracking physical activity data. Journal of the American Medical Association, 313 (6), 625–26.
Endeavour Partners. 2014a. Inside wearables: How the science of human behavior change offers the secret to long-term engagement. Accessed Mar. 29, 2015. www.endeavourpartners.net/assets/Wearables-and-the-Science-of-Human-Behavior-Change-EP4.pdf.
Endeavour Partners. 2014b. Inside wearables: Part 2. Accessed Mar. 29, 2015. www.endeavourpartners.net/assets/Endeavour-Partners-Inside-Wearables-Part-2-July-2014.pdf.
Parks Associates. 2015a. More than 40 million smartphone owners actively use at least one wellness or fitness app. Accessed Mar. 29, 2015. www.parksassociates.com/blog/article/pr-jan2015-mobile-health-opps.
Parks Associates. 2015b. Global revenues from connected fitness trackers to exceed $5 billion by 2019. Accessed Mar. 29, 2015. www.parksassociates.com/blog/article/pr-march2015-whcc.
Rose, B. 2015. No, phones aren’t more accurate than fitness wearables. Accessed Mar. 29, 2015. www.wired.com/2015/03/fitness-tracking-test/.
Stackpool, C.M. et al. 2015. Are activity trackers accurate? ACE ProSource. Accessed Apr. 1, 2015. www.acefitness.org/prosourcearticle/5216/ace-sponsored-research-are-activity-trackers.