While waiting near the bar at a local tavern to pick up dinner, I overheard the following conversation:
Guy: I like your bracelet, is that a Fitbit?
Girl: Yeah, it’s a Fitbit Flex.
Guy: Totally awesome, I think I’m going to get one. Hey, can I buy you a beer?
The pickup lines of the 21st century now include complimenting each other on our artificially intelligent wearable devices.
This conversation led me to ask a question: What makes fitness wearables (such as Fitbit) so alluring?
The Fitbit website shows attractive, athletic, and trendy people wearing these devices.
Tory Burch, a popular fashion designer, has created her own line of Fitbit jewelry that is marketed as a “super chic accessory.”
Fitbit claims its devices help people track health and count calories while shopping, running, or even clubbing. The company’s most advanced tracker starts at $250 and gives you continuous heart-rate monitoring and all-day activity statistics.
Jawbone, another popular wearable, is branded as a lifestyle tracker.
Its UP3 model has the following description:“The most advanced activity tracker known to man, UP3 is packed with state-of-the-art sensors that give you the full picture of your health. Heart Health Sensor measures resting heart rate – a leading indicator of your overall health and fitness level.”
This UP3 device, claiming to be the world’s most advanced tracker, starts at $180.
Wearable devices can spit out an impressive amount of raw data about the workings of our bodies, and that’s the great appeal.
These gadgets give us the same data that doctors often use to measure signs of good health. Now this data is only an arm’s length away. Why go to the doctor to get a stamp of approval when your wearable gives you positive affirmations and cute smiley faces?The expert marketing campaigns assure you that knowing your continuous heart rate, sleep cycle, resting heart rate, and oxygen saturations will make you a healthier human being.
The trouble with this notion is that it assumes the more data that is generated, the healthier we are.
The real question remains, does this data change behavior?
Large technology companies have marketed wearables as part of the “Quantified Self” movement, which has been gaining popularity since 2007. This Quantified Self concept assumes that by using devices that record and report information about behaviors such as physical activity or sleep patterns, people can become educated and motivated to adopt better habits and better health.
Researchers at the Center for Connected Health in Boston took a closer look at the effect wearables have on behavior.
Activity trackers were given to participants for a 6- to 9-month period to assess whether they changed peoples’ behavior.
Three distinct patterns emerged.
Ten percent of the participants were “quantified selfers”—that is, they had a slightly higher affinity for the constant feedback a wearable provides and they were motivated to be more active simply by looking at the numbers.
Around 20% of the participants needed more encouragement than the wearables could offer, yet did not find them completely useless.
The remainder of the subjects (around 70%) didn’t appreciate the data or use the data in a way that promoted behavior change.
This highlights an important concept: data alone does not drive change.
Wearables can generate terabytes of data, but what data do people truly find useful?
On Jan 1 of this year, technology analyst J.P. Gownder laid out the results of a survey that asked consumers what features in a wearable technology they were most interested in using.
None of the top 5 features included fitness or health data.
The functions deemed most valuable included accessing maps, taking photos and videos, receiving contextual information about locations, shopping online, and browsing the Internet.
Continuous heart-rate monitoring can’t compete with a wearable that will take a selfie or give a Yelp review.
On Jan 8, 2015, JAMA released an article discussing the gap between gathering information and changing behavior. The authors concluded that these wearables may have great potential, however, the devices alone are not enough to drive sustainable change. Change ultimately depends on human interaction.
The authors state that human components of “individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops” cannot be simply replaced by technology.
Despite this, wearable fitness tracker sales are expected to soar in the next few years, with an estimated 60 million being used by 2018. The activity tracker industry has turned into a multibillion-dollar machine without any hard scientific evidence that proves devices promote behavior change that leads to improved health outcomes.
For people who consider themselves Quantified Selfers, this is good news. They are able to use the data, adjust behavior, and transform different aspects of their life. Quantified Selfers tend to be tech savvy, under the age of 35, and have an income of around $100,000 per year. Unfortunately, this is a very small percentage of the population that can reap the true benefits of a wearable fitness tracker.
While the fitness tracker market booms and young adults admire each other’s wearable activity devices, I can’t help but reminisce about the days when a pair of running shoes and a friend were all one needed to jumpstart a healthy lifestyle.