The Big Problem With Fitness Trackers

With the holiday season coming up, many people may gift or receive one of the dozens of fitness trackers on the market today. While they are all different in cost, aesthetic, and metrics, they all have the common goal of encouraging more physical activity. Research has finally come close to conclusively showing that those who move their bodies regularly (walking at least 30 mins per day, on average) are less likely to die prematurely as those who didn’t. These findings suggest that giving a fitness tracker may mean giving your loved one the gift of increased lifespan and health, but this may not be the case yet.

Given the new confidence in this modest exercise recommendation, you might think that fitness trackers that allow you to see how many steps you’ve gone and how much you’ve exercised in a day would be a big hit in getting us moving. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on this claim. The issue appears to be that user stop wearing the trackers once the initial novelty wears off. Both qualitative and quantitative experiments suggest that, while fitness trackers initially seem to encourage increased activity, over time, people just stop wearing them. Reasons ranging from discomfort to inaccuracy demonstrate that there is still a lot of work to be done to improve the wearability and desirability of current trackers.

There is also still a lot of research to be done in the scientific community to improve the compliance of study participants who are told to wear trackers. A recent New York Times article summarizing these findings laments that promising experiments have been weakened “because most of the participants had quit wearing their monitors most of the time.” Fitness trackers can play a big role in population health moving forward… if only manufacturers and scientists can figure out how to get users to continue wearing them.

Do you use a fitness tracker? Has it helped you become more active?