High-Tech Exercise Trackers Get People Moving—Sometimes

New study hints at the perils and promises of activity monitors.

Posted Jan 23, 2018

Image by Wuefab, wikipedia, CC4
Source: Image by Wuefab, wikipedia, CC4

The Mystery of Those Wearable Activity Trackers

Did you ever wish you had an activity monitor—a device like a Fitbit that would count steps and other types of movement—to motivate you to exercise more? If so, you will be interested in a recent study that might bring to mind the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.”

It may seem that possessing a new activity monitor (aka, “activity tracker”) would almost automatically nudge you to amp up your current exercise level. But would it?

In an intriguing study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in December 2017, 300+ volunteers underwent various tests for heart health and received free activity monitors. Study subjects regulated their own use of these trackers, much as they would if they had bought them on their own. For a period of six months, the participants followed their own exercise inclinations. They were able to view their key activity measures on their tracker as well as view summary data on their PC or smartphone. 

What happened? Contrary to what one might have predicted, participants’ average step count declined over the six-month period. Despite this decline, fifty-seven percent of study subjects thought their activity had actually increased! To add injury to insult, when measures of heart health were re-taken six months later, there was no improvement in cardiovascular risk factors.    

So why did the test subjects exercise less? And under what conditions might participants have actually benefited from the activity trackers and exercised more? 

Analysis

According to cardiologist and corresponding author Dr. Luke Burchill, activity trackers would likely have been effective if the users had set goals. As Burchill stated in an interview with Science Daily, if users set reasonable goals, “… such as 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day or 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week —these trackers can be powerful tools for increasing physical activity."

Previous research confirms Burchill’s hypothesis about the importance of setting specific goals. In a classic study by psychologist John Norcross, people who made specific New Year’s resolutions were compared with people who wanted to change but did not make specific resolutions. Six months later, forty-six percent of those who made specific resolutions had kept them, compared to 4 percent for non-resolvers. In other words, the “resolvers” were ten (10!) times more likely to have kept their resolutions than those who wanted to change but did not set specific goals. (For details, click here.)

Other Research

Other studies have come up with similar counter-intuitive results about the effectiveness of activity trackers. For example, in this study, researchers recruited about 500 overweight young men and women who wanted to lose weight. After six months in which all participants followed a low-calorie diet and lost weight, participants were divided into two groups. One group recorded their daily exercise sessions on a study website; another group was given activity monitors to wear. Much to the surprise of the researchers, the participants that wore activity monitors moved less and lost less weight than the website group.

Another study that found fitness trackers to be counter-productive focused on 100 middle-school boys and girls in England. These young people were given activity trackers pre-programmed to 10,000 steps per day. "Leader boards" online showed which students had been the most and least active. By the end of the study, students reported feeling less motivated than before they received the monitors.

The design for this study may have contributed to the poor results in two ways.  First, although the students were given a goal of 10,000 steps, this goal was determined by the researchers, not by the students. Second, by posting activity "leaders" on a leader board, researchers turned the activity into a competition with peers. Both these tactics may have undermined the students' intrinsic motivation. Instead of cultivating their own motivation, the young people perceived the pressure to change as coming from outside ("controlled motivation"), rather than from within, and rebelled against that control.

The Real Secrets to Exercise Success

An activity tracker on the wrist may feel like a magical talisman that will increase exercise without actual effort, but old-fashioned motivation is still essential. 

How could someone get motivated to get moving?  First of all, the best way to make any resolution successful, as described above, is to actually make a specific resolution. Then power up that resolution by making sure that:

  • It’s a resolution that you value.
  • You are making the decision to change for reasons that are meaningful to you—your motivators. There are many reasons to set an exercise goal.  Focus on the “whys” that are relevant to you. A sense of self-determination is key to success.
  • You feel reasonably confident that your method of change will work for you.
  • Your goal is SMART—Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-based.
  • You figure out a way to monitor yourself, so you know if you really are improving. Here's where that tracker could come in handy. Or just keep a record of your exercise minutes in your appointment book. Low-tech, yes, but effective!

Conclusion

To be clear: High-tech activity monitors can work for many people who want to start or beef up their exercise program. But they only work under certain conditions.

So if you think a tracker would work for you, go ahead and get one. But before you buy, have a talk with yourself and make sure that you are ready, willing, and able to make this change. Then set goals and make a plan, following the guidelines above. Finally, enjoy the beneficial changes you will see in yourself as you become more active—mood lift, more energy, better health, slimmer physique, better balance, creativity, and a host of others.  

© Meg Selig, 2018

Special thanks to Dr. Luke Burchill, M.D., Ph.D., for sending me a copy of this research and patiently discussing the finer points via email.  Much appreciated! Dr. Burchill is an assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Medicine. (Any misinterpretations of the study are my own, however.)​

References

Thosar, S.S., Niederhausen, M., Lapidus, J., Fino, N.F., Cigarroa, J., Minnier, J., Colner, S., Nayak, A., Burchill, L.J. Self-regulated use of a wearable activity sensor is not associated with improvements in physical activity, cardiometabolic risk or subjective health status. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2017; bjsports-2017-098512 DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-098512

“Activity Monitors Only Effective When Users Set Goals,” Science Daily. 

Selig, M. "Should You Change? Warning: This is a Trick Question," psychologytoday.com 

Reynolds, G. “Activity trackers may undermine weight loss efforts,” New York Times

Reynolds, G. “Activity Trackers Don’t Always Work the Way We Want Them To,” New York Times

Selig, M. “The Best Way to Make Your New Year’s Resolution Successful,” psychologytoday.com

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