Science of Performance

Fitness Trackers Fail Because They're Not Human

Studies have shown that more than half of us abandon our trackers after purchasing. The more effective, low-tech answer to your fitness goals? A friend.

Fitness Trackers Fail Because They're Not Human
Friends are the strongest motivators. (svetikd/iStock)

Chances are you or someone you know received a wearable fitness device this holiday season. These devices, perennially atop gift-giving lists and integral to New Year’s resolutions, measure everything from steps taken to heart-beats beaten to hours slept. In doing so, they motivate better habits and drive healthy behavior change—or so the theory goes. 

But recent survey data shows that more than half of individuals who use a wearable stop using it at some point after purchasing it, and, among those, one third do so within six months. Even if someone ardently uses their wearable, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll see results. Consider a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that among overweight people following the same diet, those who used a fitness tracker lost less weight compared to those who did not. (The researchers were not sure about the cause.) In another JAMA article, “Wearable Devices as Facilitators, Not Drivers, of Heath Behavior Change,” researchers from the University of Pennsylvania wrote, “The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial, and while these [wearable] devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests they are bridging that gap.” 

There is, however, at least one fitness tracker that seems particularly effective in helping people across all fitness levels reach their goals. It’s surprisingly low-tech, and, perhaps because of that, is far too often an afterthought: a friend.

For a comprehensive analysis published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers reviewed over 30 studies in search of factors that consistently motivate people to start and stick with exercise programs. What they found is that one of the strongest motivators to keep with a fitness routine is having the support of friends and family. This idea was clearly demonstrated in two specific studies. The first, published in 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that when someone becomes obese, his or her friends are 57 percent more likely to become obese as well. The second study, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2011, demonstrated that the flipside of this is true, too: an individual’s exercise habits can often be predicted by examining his or her social circle—people who have friends that exercise tend to exercise as well. In other words, fitness is contagious.

“A commitment to a device isn’t nearly as powerful as a commitment to a person,” says Sherry Pagoto, a behavioral scientist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “We are very affected by those around us, especially when we go through a shared struggle like the process of developing fitness.” According to Pagoto, while social media and other virtual networks may be helpful motivators for some, to date, nothing matches the motivational power of a training partner or group. “It’s hard to replicate the intimate ties, subsequent support, and perhaps most importantly, accountability that comes with real, live training partners,” she says. In other words, it’s a lot harder to ignore a training partner than it is to ignore a wrist strap.

As for finding the ideal training partner, a 2012 study from Kansas State University suggests you’d be wise to find someone who is a bit better than you. Researchers found that when people exercised with someone whom they perceived as slightly fitter than themselves, they increased their workout duration and intensity by up to 200 percent. “There is definitely a competitive element that, for many, probably lends itself to increased performance,” says Pagoto. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the best training environments tend to be groups of individuals pushing each other toward common goals. While this helps explain the success of recreational programs like Team in Training and your local CrossFit gym, it is perhaps an even greater factor in elite sports. Recently, more and more “training squads," as they’re called—like ALTIS (track and field), the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project (distance running), and the JFTcrew (triathlon)—are producing world-class athletes and results. 

“Training is hard. Let’s not pretend that we all have bulletproof internal motivation, that we will ‘bring it’ every single day,” says Stuart McMillan, a sprint coach and director of performance at ALTIS who, along with a few other coaches and athletes, is credited with helping Andre De Grasse take silver in the 200-meter run during the 2016 Rio Games (he came within a split second of Usain Bolt). “For those days when athletes need a little pick-me-up, their teammates are there. And they know this.” 

“The energy that comes with being in a group of committed like-minded individuals clearly enhances the training process, and in some cases enables athletes to do more than they could on their own or do the same work more effectively,” says Joe Filliol, the coach of the JFTcrew, a training squad that over the last four years has produced 38 World Triathlon Series podium finishes, nine Olympians, and a world champion.

Then again, this sentiment is nothing new. Long before we had high-tech training tools, the founding fathers of the American running boom relied heavily upon group workouts, and it undergirded much of their success. In his memoir, My Marathon: Reflections on a Gold Medal Life, Frank Shorter writes, “Working with [legendary runners] Kenny Moore and Steve Prefontaine convinced me of the enormous benefits of elite-level, like-minded training partners.” 

So, as you set out to pursue your 2017 fitness goals, you’d be wise to spend at least as much time and energy shopping for the perfect training partner or group as you would shopping for the perfect wearable. Odds are, the former will do more for your long-term performance than the latter. As Filliol told me, “surrounded by commitment, success is inevitable.” 

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