Wearable Technology - Are they doing more harm than good?

Wearable Technology - Are they doing more harm than good?

Have you ever wondered where that 10,000 steps a day goal came from for your fitness watch? That little challenge that you get reminders on from your sexy wearable tech, whether it be from trail blazers Fitbit, high end Apple or built for mountaineers Garmin? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you. It didn’t come from high end research into fitness and well-being. It isn’t a scientifically proven goal that’ll transform your life as a minimum fitness requirement. It’s simply a brand name.

The concept of walking 10,000 steps originated in Japan in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Olympic fever swept Japan, pedometers became extremely popular (just like cycling became extremely popular here after London 2012). The 10,000 steps came from a company who made a device called a manpo-kei; meaning literally ‘10,000 step meter’. From there, what was once a brand slogan, became an assumed life style goal driven by wearable fitness technology.

The reason I start with this bit of information, is because there is a general assumption that being able to track your fitness stats will result in positive behavioural change and that the wearable technology will drive that change. But if the technology is driving a goal with little basis in science and doesn’t drive goals that will help people achieve what they think it will, then the change can only be negative. The goal is also fairly ridiculous when you compare people; my steps, as a 6’ 5”, 94kg man are going to be very different, and have a different physiological impact, to a 5’ 3”, 48kg woman. Therefore, to expect the same fitness and wellbeing result between different people is unreasonable. The 10,000 step goal is, however, psychologically motivating. It’s a nice round number, it feels reasonably achievable and is simple to explain. Hence why it’s so popular.

Let’s have a think quickly about why people buy wearable fitness tech. Most of the fitness companies promote three main reasons;

  • To keep track of your progress. For Gymbox members who are already highly motivated compared to other fitness enthusiasts, this seems like a very useful goal. Understanding progress, maintain current levels of fitness or understanding how various influence effect performance is something wearable tech can help with.
  • Helps in setting achievable goals. If you’re new to fitness and need something to help you achieve your goals, or you’re a veteran fitness enthusiast and simply want to achieve more, fitness tech is again very useful.
  • Quantified Self Concept. Simply, the idea that wearable collecting data about everything you do, eat and feel will reveal patterns and information that can help you improve your life.

Again these are all reasonable goals. But the real question is; does it work? Well, a study by three researchers from Toronto looked at long term use in a study called Persuasive Technology in the Real World: A Study of Long-Term Use of Activity Sensing Devices for Fitness.

The answer is; yes at first, but not in the long term. Let’s look at some of the results and feedback from users:

General effects

Most of the participants had integrated the devices deeply into their routines and daily practices, wearing them either all of the time or putting them on first thing in the morning and taking them off just before bed. They described strong attachments to them:

“I'm a little obsessed with it. I look at it all the time … I'm always curious, like where I am at what point of the day.”

“I feel I find it hard not to wear it.”

Continued and routine use of the devices

Wearers did not stay consistently enthusiastic about them. Although some participants remained excited about them, others indicated that early novelty had worn off and given way to more moderate attitudes despite continued use:

“I liked it a lot in the beginning and I think now I’ve sort of fallen out of love with it. You know it’s like you’ve been married for a long time and… it’s all right but the excitement has gone.”

“That might be something that’s changed since I’ve had it a while. I don’t really feel like an urgent impulse to meet my goals and have it validate my activity. I do wear it and I do look at the numbers, but it doesn’t necessarily affect my feelings day to day that much at this point.”

Long-term use

Users have a high degree of awareness of the “value” of their activities in the context of the measurements provided by the systems. Participants revealed a detailed understanding of both routine and non-routine activities:

“I know that if I stay home and work all day … I'm only going to hit like, you know, 3,000 or 4,000 in the apartment. And I know if I'm [at work] … I could get to 8000 really easily. So I'd like to be over 10,000, maybe around 12,000. You know, and then I feel really good about myself if I hit 15,000 or 20,000. But that doesn't really happen; those are the days I don't do any work.”

The study’s conclusions are that wearable technology shows that despite changing goals and practices over time, some people continue to get value and motivation from their devices. However, for most people who are already very well motivated and understand the goals they want to achieve, wearables don’t seem to have the long term impact to justify the investment. My view, is that the science doesn’t seem to stack up on the justification and you’re better off investing in quality, professional support from a PT.

I’ll leave you with this final story. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting, a fitness scientist called Dr Hager took issue with the 'one-size-fits-all' approach of the 10,000 steps goal and the way fitness trackers and apps work. He said “some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent, and I bet every now and then it gives you that cool little message 'you did 10,000 steps today'," he said. "But why is 10,000 steps important? Is that the right number for any of you in this room? Who knows? It’s just a number that’s now built into the apps. I think apps could definitely be doing more harm than good”.

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