I participated in the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project Walk to Israel fundraiser last month. The goal was to walk a total of 100 miles by averaging 10,000 steps per day.
People from various cities signed up for the challenge. In Ottawa, I registered with JET (Jewish Education through Torah). Each participant purchased an activity tracker – I call it a pedometer on steroids. It not only counts your steps, but also shares your data (with your permission) with other participants. I could look at my smart phone or laptop at any time and see how many steps each walker, including myself, had accumulated.
I must admit I was initially reluctant to get one of these trackers. I thought it would be a waste of money. After all, I’m intrinsically motivated to exercise regularly. Plus, I tend to be a late adopter of technology, preferring to do things the old-fashioned way. What value could such a gadget offer me? Nonetheless, I decided to give it a whirl and purchased a $99 FitBit bracelet. There are other brands and models at various price points.
The first day after I began wearing my tracking bracelet, I realized that, although I regularly work out, I don’t walk a lot. When I’m not working out or training clients, I tend to sit – and that is unhealthy. Initially, I was only walking about 5,000 steps per day, which was half my goal. I had to make a conscious effort to sit less and walk more.
While I’m not particularly competitive, I found myself wanting to be at or near the top of the leader board at the end of each day. I felt more compelled to get those steps in. But I’m not convinced the device itself was driving my motivation. I believe it was the Hawthorne Effect – which I studied long ago as a psychology major. Named after an experiment in the 1920s and ‘30s to increase workers’ productivity at the Hawthorne Work Electric Company, this is the phenomenon whereby people tend to work harder and perform better, not due to the manipulation of independent variables, but due to being observed. Knowing other participants could view my step count motivated me to walk more.
A major drawback of these wearable technologies that purport to change behaviour is that people who most need motivation are unlikely to try them. You have to be prepared psychologically to change before you can take action.
The opportunity to be part of a group was an incentive for some of the participants to try the device. We organized weekly group walks at an indoor track. The fact that the 10,000-steps-per-day challenge was a month long, rather than open-ended, made the goal seem more achievable.
Another weakness of these devices is that they attempt to provide a cookie-cutter solution. Positive phrases and happy face icons are not quite the same as a real-life trainer or dietician and may be inadequate for maintaining motivation in the long term. The devices’ websites enable you to manually enter what you eat and services include automatic calorie count estimation. However, trainers and dieticians go beyond the numbers by getting to know you, providing customized exercise and dietary programs, and steering you back on track when you’re performing sub-optimally.
One can get distracted by the technology. The ability to review your progress on the website’s dashboard where your up-to-the-minute steps and other data are presented can become addictive.
As with most exercise gadgets, fitness equipment and gym memberships, the novelty factor wears off quickly. There are three key factors that affect ongoing use: habit formation, social motivation and goal reinforcement. A 2013 survey revealed that one in 10 American adults own an activity tracker. The reality is that a third of tracker owners stopped using it within six months and half of all tracker owners no longer use their tracker (“Inside Wearables,” Endeavour Partners, January 2014). A follow-up study showed that the rate of adoption of wearables is increasing (probably due to marketing), but wearable abandonment is continuing at a constant rate.
Have a Happy Chanukah. If you skip the fried latkes and doughnuts, you won’t have to walk off as many excess calories – tracker or no tracker.
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC and the author of Personal Best: Train Your Brain and Transform Your Body for Life.