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Hand holding a fitbit

Does wearing a fitness tracker help with motivation?

Since the first Fitbit was released back in 2009, smart watches and smartphone apps have gone through an unprecedented boom in both sales and popularity. It’s unlikely you’ll go through a full day without seeing someone wearing one of these devices – perhaps you even own one yourself. So does wearing one motivate you to exercise more?

The main criticism of these devices is that there is limited evidence on whether they work or not, and the results of studies so far have certainly not been as glowing as brands like Garmin, Jawbone, Fitbit and other manufacturers would like. A study published in 2016 with 800 test subjects found that after one year, the use of a fitness tracker had no effect on the overall health and fitness of subjects, even when a financial incentive was involved. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association even found subjects without fitness trackers lost more weight than those wearing them.

Yet sales of fitness trackers and smartwatches continue to soar, and new fitness-related smartphone apps pop up seemingly every day. So they must be working for some people, right?

We here at Deakin decided to put fitness trackers to the test. We asked our Social Media Coordinator Alexander Crowden to monitor his activity levels and mood for two weeks; one week wearing a Fitbit and one week without it – and compare the difference.

Putting it to the test

Week 1:

‘I have been wearing a Fitbit for the past few months. I’ve been more active in that time than the previous months before purchasing it. However, I was more conscious of how active I was during this week as I knew I had to report on it. I found that I wasn’t particularly active during this week due to work, other commitments and social plans. The Melbourne winter with its short days and lowering temperatures certainly didn’t help either.

‘Probably the only activity I noticed that I did differently was when I noticed I was on 9,200 steps at around 9:30pm on the Tuesday night. I then proceeded to walk the required 800 steps around my small apartment while watching Netflix. While 800 steps is only around 700 metres for someone of my height, when walking purely inside and for steps, it really takes a long, long time.

‘There wasn’t really any other time during the week where my behaviour changed at all. I did have a feeling of guilt for most of the week due to not being as active as I thought I should be, with the knowledge I would have to report back on it.’

Week 2:

‘There was a certain feeling of being ‘unshackled’ once removing the Fitbit on Monday morning. While my smartphone records steps, I purposely refused to look at them for the week for the integrity of the comparison. I did find that I had much less motivation to do things I would normally classify as “step-hacks” to help me get to my usual goal of 10,000 daily steps. I usually take the stairs at work, but found myself using the lift, and my motivation to go for morning or nightly walks was significantly decreased.

‘However, had I been allowing myself to check the step tracker in my phone, I may have felt more motivated. Yet I have to say I was definitely less motivated without my Fitbit, as it felt like doing extra steps was “a waste” as it was not recorded, even though I know every extra step is beneficial health-wise.’

An expert’s opinion

Dr Nicky Ridgers, from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), says the current craze of fitness trackers is nothing new. ‘It could be argued that many activity trackers are just modern pedometers; the first of which was reportedly created in the 1700s.’

Similar to Alex’s two-week experiment, the limited research that has been conducted around fitness trackers is fairly inconclusive, according to Dr Ridgers. ‘There is little evidence in adolescent populations that activity trackers increase activity levels. In adults the findings are mixed.’

Retention of usage is a genuine concern; that behaviours aren’t changed and in some cases the devices are abandoned altogether after the initial appeal wears off. ‘Our research with adolescents has suggested that interest in the device drops after about two weeks,’ Dr Ridgers says. In fact, she says 25-50% of adults cease to use devices after six months of purchase.

'There is little evidence in adolescent populations that activity trackers increase activity levels. In adults the findings are mixed.'

Dr Nicky Ridgers,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University

Whether fitness trackers can actually create positive fitness habits remains to be seen. Trackers and apps include a number of behaviour change techniques; but Dr Ridgers says the challenge is for the manufacturers to meet the needs of the people using them. People also need to not expect miracles out of the box. While they can be an aid to increasing daily exercise and fitness, they can’t alone replace willpower. In the end it really comes down to the individual.

If you feel an app or a tracker helps you to be more active and increase fitness levels, then it is probably worth it. But that just might not be the case for someone else.

‘Using the tracker to self-monitor activity levels can, for example, raise awareness of current activity levels in relation to physical activity guidelines, which may in turn motivate people to change their activity levels,’ Dr Ridgers concludes.

N.B. It is worth noting that several weeks post the experiment, Alex has not begun wearing the Fitbit again.

Keen to get active but struggling with motivating yourself? Check out our article on how to choose the right workout for you

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Dr Nicky Ridgers
Dr Nicky Ridgers

National Heart Foundation Future Leader, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

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