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Fitness trackers for motivation

Pete’s World

Published: January 9, 2023

Popular among the plethora of gifts passed out this past holiday season are the countless varieties of fitness tracking devices.
Now I’ve been quietly pondering whether or not a cheeky little wrist watch or a fancy fitness app could actually compel folks to do something that trainers like me oftentimes struggle to do: Compel people to remain compliant with their fitness programs.
I mean, consider all the fitness related devices that have fizzled - like vibration belts, shake weights, thighmasters, Nordic Tracks, ab rockets & rollers, bowflex gyms, belly burners and body blades - primarily because they didn’t have the motivational capacity to keep a person engaged for the long term.
Anyway, that pondering got me Google searching peer reviewed studies concerning the motivational effectiveness of fitness tracking devices.
A 2016 JAMA study, Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial, tested the hypothesis that, “Compared with a standard behavioral weight loss intervention (standard intervention), a technology-enhanced weight loss intervention (enhanced intervention) would result in greater weight loss.”
Well, the study determined just the opposite. Researchers concluded that a “hands-on” approach via human feedback and guidance seemed to assist in more weight loss compared to the feedback and guidance provided by a web-based interface (FIT Core; BodyMedia).
Another 2016 study, Effectiveness of activity trackers with and without incentives to increase physical activity (TRIPPA): a randomized controlled trial, published in The Lancet Diabetes Endocrinology, was conducted over the course of a year and involved 800 test subjects who used fitness trackers. Now according to this study, “Fitbit participants increased their physical activity by 16 minutes per week. However, by six months, 40% of the participants had stopped wearing their trackers, and by one year, only 10% of the participants were still wearing them.”
So again, the device didn’t appear to offer enough of a motivational boost to keep people engaged in long term fitness regimes.
Then there’s the August 2017 paper, ACTIVITY TRACKING + MOTIVATION SCIENCE Allies to Keep People Moving for a Lifetime, published in ACSM’s (American College of Sports Medicine) Health and Fitness Journal, where the author, Michelle L. Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S., concluded that, “Tracking apps and wearables that provide feedback inherently may not be motivating. Motivational quality results from people’s primary reason, or motive, for starting to exercise or become more physically active. Ironically, the most common motives tend to be the least motivating long term.”
She asserts that health and fitness professionals can do what tracking devices cannot:
1. Gain an understanding of a client’s “why,” or motive for wanting to become more physically active,
2. Properly determine the activities clients would enjoy in order to stay engaged long term,
3. Help clients to achieve realistic, attainable goals as well as to think in terms of a success continuum based on learning and adjusting.
But wait, it’s not all bad news here.
My final offering is this little ray of sunshine, a research study which was run in August 2022, Effectiveness of wearable activity trackers to increase physical activity and improve health: a systematic review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, published in The Lancet Digital Health.
Now this study is a meta-analyses of a compilation of previous studies, almost 400 previous studies actually, and collectively these studies involved some 164,000 people who used wearable activity trackers (WAT) to monitor their physical activity.
And the outcome here is different. These researchers concluded their study by saying, “This summary shows that interventions using activity trackers have positive effects on physical activity metrics, a mixture of positive and non-significant effects for physiological metrics, and mostly suggestive positive effects for psychosocial outcomes.”
What’s more, they state, “Our results suggest that interventions using wearables resulted on average in an extra 1,800 steps per day, 40 minutes per day more walking, and a six minute per day increase in MVPA [moderate-to-vigorous physical activity].”
Thus, there's studies out there promoting the fitness tracker as a motivational tool, and others portraying it as a demotivating tool. I think it comes down to this: If you honestly believe an app or tracker could help you to become more active and fit, then it probably can, but if you’re not sure, then you just might need that human element for more motivation.
So…where do you lie?