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Is Fitness Technology a Motivator or a Distractor?

If you don’t already have one strapped around your wrist, you probably know someone who does. Smartwatches and wearable activity trackers are stepping up in popularity, and so are fitness-related mobile apps.

Experts predict that fit tech will play a huge role in the future of fitness and wellness. However, as popular as it is, it’s still in its early stages, which lands the fitness industry in a bit of a conundrum. The tech world is already redefining the fitness landscape—mostly from outside our industry. Meanwhile, many fitness pros (who aren’t necessarily early adopters) are jockeying to determine how relevant this technology is for themselves, their clients and their jobs.

As fitness technology advances, so does its integration with everything, or close to everything, we do. Here lies the conundrum. Many fitness pros are behind on their fit tech knowledge and application. A lot of clients and prospects, especially young ones, are farther along. While there will always be a valid argument for “exercise unplugged,” more corners of the industry need to embrace technology, and quickly.

This article explores many important questions about fit tech, such as: How is the influx of wearables and apps reshaping the exercise experience? What about evidence that suggests people abandon their activity trackers after only a few months? Should fitness pros be poking around in clients’ personal data? Finally, with so many fit tech choices, where does one begin?

Motivator or a Distractor?

There’s a lot of buzz about fitness technology as a trend. However, for a trend to be valuable to the fitness industry, it must help people exercise more regularly and effectively. Fit tech does both, but it may also complicate how people feel about working out. If getting off the couch wasn’t enough of a hurdle, now they’ve got to be up to speed with technology, too. “It’s possible that for some, the idea of ‘needing’ a tech tool can be a barrier to getting started, much like ‘needing’ to buy a new pair of running shoes to start a walking program,” says Mark Berman, MD, vice president of health for Mark One Lifestyle Inc. in San Francisco. However, he believes people see tech tools mostly as a means for starting or progressing exercise.

Patrick Jak, MSc, is a coach, trainer, and director of metabolic testing at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego. “Technology may be one more thing to learn, but because apps and devices are so simple in their design (my 3-year-old son can figure out how to use them without any input or guidance), they are less overwhelming for someone who has never exercised in a fitness club or with a trainer,” he says. “It’s also less intimidating and [has] less perceived risk than walking into a crowded gym.”

In fact, technology may bridge the gap for people who would otherwise feel quite anxious about exercise. You could argue that some folks make a foray into fitness entirely because of technology. “For nonexercisers who enjoy technology, fitness tech might just be what they need to get moving,” says France Marien, creator of three fitness apps from Remix Workouts and a certified fitness instructor in Seattle. “For them, the technology is instinctive and already part of their world, so they barely need to ‘learn’ anything new. Fit tech might motivate curious beginners to be more active.”

Jak echoes this thought: “Many who turn to technology in their exercise and nutrition have done so because they use the same technology in many other, if not all, aspects of their lives (i.e., smartphones). Fitness is just the next step for them.”

“Technology creates more choice and alternatives,” says Bryan O’Rourke, MBA, founder and CEO of Integerus Advisors, and president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council in Covington, Louisiana. “[As a result,] there are more convenient, effective and affordable paths to a healthier lifestyle.”

Something else happens when exercise and technology come together. It’s what personal trainer Ted Vickey, MS, senior adviser for disruptive health technologies for Canyon Ranch Institute, who lives in Carlsbad, California, calls a “rebranding of ‘exercise’ to include more daily physical activity.” In other words, trackers illuminate how activity builds up during the day. “Using a device like a fitness tracker that monitors steps is actually helping people see that exercise can be taking a walk, working in the garden or doing daily chores around the house,” says Vickey. For some people, this awareness may quell negative feelings about one of the most daunting steps in adopting a healthier lifestyle: getting started.

“Technology is an engagement tool, and with [engagement] comes awareness,” says Truckee, California–based Darcy Norman, PT, director of the Performance Innovation Team for EXOS. “The awareness leads to education and then . . . motivation to get something started,” he says.

Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, PhD, is a researcher and senior lecturer at Indiana University School of Public Health in Bloomington. “I believe that the 80%–85% of participants who have never engaged in structured fitness programs will benefit from using a tracker . . . to observe and track their daily movement,” she says. “This gradual progression might eventually enhance participation.”

Such a benefit extends beyond the newbie. “I also believe activity trackers are helping fit participants realize they need to get movement outside of a typical structured fitness program,” says Kennedy-Armbruster.

When it comes to helping people get moving, or move more, fitness technology works. However, there’s at least one setback. Research shows that many people toss their activity trackers in a drawer after only a few months. “What we have seen is that the initial engagement . . . dries up very quickly,” says Norman. This is an important consideration for any fitness professional who builds trackers and tracker data into their client services.

Unworn Wearables?

Despite a steady increase in fit tech adoption rates, a percentage of users still abandon their activity trackers before very long. Here are some numbers: In the fall of 2013, Endeavour Partners conducted research showing that close to half of consumers ditched their trackers after 6 months (Endeavour 2014a). As of June 2014, that stat had improved to 34% of people tossing their wearables within the same timeframe (Endeavour 2014b).

Still, what’s going on? Tech experts offer various explanations:

Perceived value is low.

There’s a wide range of trackers out there, some of which provide more perceived and actual value than others, especially in the area of data collection (steps taken, heart rate and/or calories burned). Some people give up on technology for training because they don’t understand the data or how it’s relevant when the novelty of counting steps wears off. “They need additional support in analysis or [other] motivators,” says Jak, who’s been providing technology-based training programs since 2002. Tracker feedback that’s overtly relevant to positive behavior change and goal achievement will have the most perceived value.

“Data for data’s sake doesn’t move the needle for population health,” says Norman. “It’s about connecting people to benefits, not data. When you use data to connect someone with attaining something, whether it’s a tiny first step or a larger goal, then data becomes a valuable part of a sustainable solution.”

This might be one reason why we see existing wearables and health/fitness apps from different companies join forces to create meaningful self-monitoring experiences. For example, dozens of apps, including MyFitnessPal and MapMyRun, sync to Fitbit® trackers. Incidentally, more than 59% of consumers say they connect their smart wearable/activity tracker to third-party applications and services (Endeavour 2014b).

“Honeymoon” phase ends.

Adherence versus attrition may also depend on what motivates someone beyond the short-term. Maybe the novelty wears off. “When users keep doing the same thing and keep getting the same data, the newness is gone,” says Marien.

“As with any new tool for fitness/wellness programming, there is usually an 8- to 12-week period where you learn and enjoy the new tool,” says Kennedy-Armbruster. “Then it’s time to put it down and try to see if you can change on your own. Those who keep tracking are usually ‘numbers people’ who enjoy learning more about their ‘patterns’ and also need the motivation. The trackers that coach and educate are the ones that people often continue to use. For example, my activity tracker gives me regular feedback about how I compare to people my age, and I enjoy that. If I take it off, I won’t get any coaching or information about myself on a daily basis.”

Accuracy is unreliable.

When it comes to abandonment rates, accuracy is also a concern. In a recent study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise, researchers found that activity trackers were good at estimating number of steps taken when subjects were walking, running and using an elliptical machine (Stackpool et al. 2015). However, the trackers didn’t fare as well when subjects—20 men and women, aged 18–44—performed sports movements like ladder drills and basketball free throws. As for calories burned, the difference between measured and predicted values ranged from 13% to 60%, with some devices overpredicting and others underpredicting. These findings could explain why seeking reinforcement from an activity tracker might sometimes frustrate users. No one wants to crush a tough workout (that isn’t based on steps taken) only to have a tracker offer up metrics along the lines of “meh.”

Marien has observed the reverse with her clients, as well. “It is very difficult to keep track of the quality of the movement,” she says. “One of my clients sees his wearable go through the roof when he practices piano.”

Trackers become obsolete.

The fit tech space is young, and a tracker that’s a year or two old could already be obsolete, making it especially tricky to conduct research. For example, a study published in a 2015 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association found that smartphone apps were as accurate at tracking activities as wearables (Case et al. 2015). However, according to a review of the study from Wired, most of the devices used in the JAMA study were at least 1–2 years old; more sophisticated devices were already on the market (Rose 2015). “Most of the behavioral research lags behind because it’s harder to collect [data] over time when the trackers keep changing,” notes Kennedy-Armbruster. “The published research is often out of date because [studies have used]
trackers that no longer exist. Much of the tracker research has been done by the companies who sell them. They have the best data and often don’t publish it for competition reasons.”

With technology changing so rapidly, some people may feel their device could be doing more. “Many who stop using their devices or apps after a few months have hit the limits of their technology,” says Jak. “Most devices and apps are still not fully automated and require some manual entry. Others provide limited features, which require additional apps and, as a result, redundant data. This limitation can be a huge barrier.”

Features fail.

Limited battery life is another potential bother. If you’re avidly tracking steps, calories burned or hours slept, breaking the count for a recharge is a buzz kill. Plus, a lot of trackers not only lack style; they’re also ugly.

At first glance, fitness pros might sense attrition rates as a sign to abandon fitness technology. If clients aren’t sticking with it, why get involved? On the contrary, fit tech is still an exciting prospect. “I don’t think [attrition] is a problem of the actual device, but rather of the science behind the device,” says Vickey, who is working on a doctorate in fitness technology from the National University of Ireland, Galway. “Is the goal of the company making the device to sell more devices or to really make a behavior change in the lives of their users? People bought the fitness device; they want to be more active. Perhaps they need just a little more ‘personal’ motivation.”

The fitness industry—yes, the industry that existed before all these apps and trackers—is the perfect force to help consumers elevate their tech experience. After all, “personal motivation” is our specialty.

Show Me the Data

With new technologies, personal trainers and gym staff have new opportunities. “There are a lot of people who purchase activity trackers and don’t have the skills needed to utilize them effectively,” says Kennedy-Armbruster. “If a client wants information on how to use them and what type to purchase, I don’t see this as any different from giving a client advice on what type of resistance tubing to use.”

O’Rourke recommends that trainers familiarize themselves with the most popular and applicable wearable and app technologies. “Clients are going to be asking about them,” he says.

In addition to educating clients/members about the actual devices, fitness pros have the ability to analyze clients’ daily health behaviors through the data collected (and perhaps garner higher fees for doing so). These metrics can be a powerful tool for helping clients more easily reach their goals. Presumably, stats don’t lie: You can see precisely how much activity a client logs during the week (assuming the device is accurate) and what he or she ate. Laying data out on the table has obvious benefits, but it also makes the client somewhat vulnerable and can potentially place the trainer in a bullying position if information is used inappropriately. No one wants to run extra wind sprints because the data revealed more than one doughnut indulgence that week. (Or maybe some clients do?)

Considering this, could there be something potentially “Big Brotherish” about peering into clients’ personal data? Only when there is no direct plan or benefit to the customer, according to Norman. “The information is there to provide awareness about the situation,” he says. “We can then employ some methodology to upgrade that behavior or habit. When that’s not happening, or the client isn’t interested in participating, then it starts to cross that line.”

O’Rourke, a former club owner, says it’s a matter of consumer choice. “If people don’t want to have their data reviewed, they won’t,” he says. “Most people are comfortable with sharing information as long as they understand what they’re sharing and why. If that leads to a better experience, they will choose to do it.”

Vickey sees our ability to incorporate actual health and fitness data into client programming as “truly groundbreaking.” “Rather than guessing why the client isn’t making the desired progress, the trainer can now analyze possible reasons—perhaps the client had a poor night’s sleep, had coffee the night before or is not drinking enough water during the day,” he says.

Trainers and gyms have always collected client data (e.g., body measurements, medical history, food journals). The path to accessing technology-based personal data, and preserving client trust, involves the same lines of clear and honest communication. “Always note that any data you collect will be kept private and will not be shared unless permission is granted,” says Jak. “This is a simple step but absolutely necessary. If need be, put it in writing.”

“We have to remember that trainers and clients had success long before technology,” says Norman. “It’s not a replacement, only another tool . . . to support the client. The more transparent a coach is about using data, the better.” Perhaps the biggest selling point is that technology and its data can make the client/trainer or member/club relationship more effective and personal—two benefits that have always attracted consumers.

Moving Forward: With or Without Fit Pros

Fitness technology is a new normal, and the trend is poised for growth. Will the fitness industry grow with it?

“We don’t want to blindly chase the latest fads,” says Jak, “but we do want to embrace ways to change our clients’ lives for the better and provide faster solutions. This can easily be done with the help of technology. Technology helps create a lifestyle that many are willing to embrace. If we don’t embrace this aspect, as an industry, we will be a thing of the past.”

“Fitness pros who have no real interest in fitness technology will still find like-minded clients, but I fear their earning potential will decrease over time,” says Vickey. “I see them like the music stores that, just a few years ago, were in every mall in the world. When we look at other industries that have recently undergone a technology disruption, we see common themes emerge. Fitness and wellness is next.”

A “disruption” doesn’t necessarily spell a loss of business for forward-thinking fitness pros and companies. “The MP3 digital music revolution led to a tripling of live music performance attendances in the first decade of the 21st century,” says O’Rourke. “Technology has the potential to grow the pie for all. Although change will create pain for many, it will also create opportunity.”

There are enough fitness pros and companies jumping ahead with fit tech to demonstrate its positive impact on the fitness industry. Not everyone is moving forward though, possibly because interest, information and/or motivation is lacking. Will these folks eventually be left behind?

“I think it’s too early to say they’ll be left behind,” says Berman. Fitness professionals excel at working with people. “There are many ways to differentiate that in-person work with various skills, interests and approaches,” Berman says. “Technology is just one way; albeit a big one.”

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