When Fitbit, Jawbone, and a host of other wearable fitness devices began invading the public consciousness back in 2013, many dismissed them as a passing fad. It’s now 2016, and sales show no signs of abating. If they really are just a fad, they’re certainly not a passing one. Of all the technological advances of recent years, few have had the impact on our day-to-day lives that wearable fitness devices have. Roughly 1 in 10 Americans now own one, and many rave about the health benefits. In turn, however, there are also now a number of studies suggesting they may not be as useful as widely believed.
One of the key arguments put forward by doubters is their lack of accuracy. Early in 2016, three people filed a class-action lawsuit against Fitbit, alleging that the company’s PurePulse Trackers gave inaccurate readings for their heart rates. One claimant said that her tracker recorded her heart rate at 82 beats per minute, but a follow-up check by a personal trainer found that it was actually 160 beats per minute. Researchers at Iowa State University also found similar discrepancies when testing how well they do at measuring energy expenditures. In tests, they discovered that the accuracy of eight activity trackers was off by as much as 15% when compared to a precise laboratory measurement, with the highest being off by 23.5%.
Such claims have been vigorously refuted by Fitbit, who note that ’it’s important to note that Fitbit trackers are designed to provide meaningful data to our users to help them reach their health and fitness goals, and are not intended to be scientific or medical devices.’ Which is true, and perhaps a level of inaccuracy is forgivable if the devices are indeed helping to reach their health and fitness goals. However, new evidence has called even this into question.
A recent study published by the Journal of Consumer Research seems to indicate that measuring an activity, whatever it is, decreases people’s motivation to keep up with it. The study found that wearable tech can be 'pernicious' and sucks the fun out of exercising, by adding an element of counting that can make you feel like you’re at work, rather than doing something you enjoy. The researchers said that that idea of tracking ourselves was 'very seductive’, but it could have hidden 'unintended harmful effects'.
Over the course of the study, Professor Jordan Etkin of Duke University carried out six experiments designed to measure how much people enjoyed this process. She found that people’s intrinsic motivation to do something declined once it was measured. In one experiment, researchers had 105 undergrads color in shapes for a few minutes, then rate how much they enjoyed it. Those who got numerical feedback on their works in progress — ‘you have colored one shape,’ — colored more shapes but reported enjoying it less. In another test, 95 students were asked to record their thoughts for a day while walking, with some given a pedometer to count their steps. The group with a pedometer walked further, but less said they enjoyed the walk compared to those not being monitored.
This does not necessarily mean, of course, that fitness trackers are useless. Etkin also noted that, ‘The reason why you’re engaging in the activity matters a lot. If it’s something that’s really goal-directed — I’m walking to lose weight, I’m walking because I want to be healthier — if walking serves some goal that I have, then measurement doesn’t make it feel less enjoyable. In fact, it can have some benefits for enjoyment.’ What it really comes down to is that trackers are worn consistently, in the right way, and for the right reasons - by people who actually need to become more healthy and are not simply exercising for fun. The underlying psychological reasons for not exercising are often deep seated and complicated. Very rarely are they ‘because I don’t have a watch to measure my workout.’ Those who really want to get fitter and change their lifestyle should start by figuring out what’s preventing them from exercising in the first place, and find ways to eliminate those barriers instead.