Wearables Won't Always Get You to Exercise More

Info presentation and engagement are key

Jan 28, 2015
Outside Magazine

Simply remembering to wear and recharge a fitness wearable is barrier enough to using it.    Fitbit

Companies often tout the benefits of their wearable fitness technology with claims that a smartwatch or heart rate monitor can educate users about their fitness and health habits and motivate them to be more active. But a recent article by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania says that strapping a piece of tech to your wrist and recording information doesn’t necessarily drive behavioral change.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the article states that the people most likely to use wearables are those who need them least. Mitesh Patel, the article’s author and an assistant professor of medicine and health care management at the University of Pennsylvania, cites a survey that found 48 percent of users are younger than 35 and nearly a third make more than $100,000 annually. “The individuals who might have the most to gain from these devices are likely to be older and less affluent,” Patel wrote. “To better engage these individuals, wearable devices must be more affordable, or new funding mechanisms [such as including them in employer or insurance health plans] are needed.”

Users must also remember to wear and recharge their tech. A survey of 6,223 people found that more than half of the people who buy wearables stop using them.

Patel also questions the devices’ accuracy. Devices like heart rate monitors and sleep-pattern trackers haven’t been well tested, he says. Further, once data is accurately recorded, it must be presented in an easy way to understand what motivates people to action. Right now, top performers, who are already active and motivated, are encouraged by their good results, but those who log only 1,000 steps a day become discouraged, according to Patel. Connecting users through apps like Strava could help foster competitiveness and push people further in training.

“Although wearable devices have the potential to facilitate health behavior change, this change might not be driven by these devices alone,” Patel wrote. “Instead, the successful use and potential health benefits related to these devices depend more on the design of the engagement strategies than on the features of their technology.”

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