Fitness trackers have become the de rigueur accessories nowadays. However, is their impact as profound as it seems and, do they help or hinder our attempts at living healthier lives?
How they work
Fitness trackers contain technologies that collect activity information, transmitting this data to mobile apps that collate and present it so that we can monitor our fitness progress.
They allow users to monitor a range of bodily activities: steps taken, heart rate, altitudinal change (when climbing steps), geo-location, and activity type and effort levels.
This yields a wealth of data that we are only just starting to come to grips with. Before we tackle this topic, though, we need to have a closer look at the effect of fitness trackers on the wearers’ approaches to exercise. Here we find some startling results.
Do fitness trackers actually work?
The fitness tracking industry is now worth over $1.15-billion, according to Scientific American (1). The IDC Worldwide Quarterly Wearables Tracker estimates that around 100-million fitness trackers were sold in 2016.
The question is: are fitness trackers succeeding in their primary aim of making people fitter and healthier?
In surveys of women fitness tracker wearers undertaken by the American Medical Association, 43% of respondents said they felt their activity was wasted if not recorded by their fitness trackers.
Terabytes of personal health data, amassed daily in stunning quantities. It’s the world’s biggest health study—and nobody’s running it.
The implications of this are astounding: almost half the people wearing fitness trackers no longer measure their fitness using the “normal” methods like increased stamina or lung capacity, to the extent that they feel that if there is no data, there is no physical benefit.
Many feel bullied by their devices, experiencing pressure to meet daily targets, and feeling that their daily activities are being too controlled (2). Market research shows that up to 50% of people stop wearing their fitness trackers within 12 months (3).
Encouraging fitness tracker engagement
Fitness tracking providers are thus discovering that gamifying the data is the best way to stimulate engagement with the device (competing against friends, unlocking achievements, etc.). This drives more engagement with the platform. It’s less about the technology and more about engagement and community sharing.
Companies are also using the feedback from metrics to work out what motivates people best, and how to present the data to increase engagement.
What are the implications of all of this data?
Scientific American sums it up succinctly: “Terabytes of personal health data, amassed daily in stunning quantities. It’s the world’s biggest health study—and nobody’s running it.”
This has many implications. There are the privacy concerns: by intercepting data, hackers can tap into one’s personal fitness and health data.
Then there is the dilemma of who owns the data, and who has access to it.
Health researchers have access to masses of data to develop new approaches to health and fitness. Sports manufacturers could use the data to improve products.
Insurance companies can use the data to reduce premiums or offer rewards based on fitness activity. Medical professionals can leverage data trends to detect underlying conditions in individuals and treat them pre-emptively.
The problem, however, is that of closed ecosystems. To achieve all of this potential, everyone needs access to aggregated data, that isn’t kept in various walled gardens.
If we are to reap all of these benefits, data sharing has to become a primary focus. The challenges are significant, but the rewards far outweigh them.
(1) Scientific America – 1 Jan 2015
(2) Journal of American Medical Association – 2016 – 470 participants
(3) Medicine and Healthcare Management at the University of Pennsylvania – 2016