Think of fitness wearables as New Year’s resolutions. Acquiring one is an act of optimism. “This will be the year I get more active, more physically fit, you think, more in tune with me, more in control”. For many people the act of acquiring a fitness tracker symbolises taking decisive action to improve their future. Yet like many New Year’s resolutions, we quickly discover that fitness and behaviour changes rarely respond to enthusiasm and gadgets. As care and health providers know, making active, productive change takes sweat equity (literally) and a willingness not only to take an unflinching approach at one’s own motivations but to seek assistance from others.
Depending on the individual, of course, the social component of a fitness programme, receiving the advice and encouragement from others, may make the difference between keeping those New Year’s resolutions or seeing them fall by the wayside. Interestingly, however, the most effective fitness wearables available today are encroaching on the traditional role of activity coaches and care providers even when they lack key elements of the equation required to inspire lasting behavior change.
Let’s envision the future of fitness wearables, drawing upon their practicalities and promise for supporting a ‘better you’ by examining current trends, technological capabilities and fitness philosophies. Let’s create a roadmap for maximising the future of fitness wearables.
Wearable fitness trackers are not particularly new, but they are experiencing growth as popular gadgets, as aids for helping sedentary persons to become more active, and for helping those who are already active to achieve more challenging fitness goals. One of the key factors in the increasing success of these devices, both in terms of sales numbers and efficacy, may be attributed to technology integration. Where many wearables provide summary data to users through small, shock-protected interfaces, they also connect with external data repositories and reporting engines which can be accessed via mobile applications, websites, and other devices. This opens a world of reporting possibilities where individuals can track their activities, evaluate their progress, receive automated coaching, and more from the comfort of a chair. Remarkably, as a motivator, a fitness tracker can help quantify an individual’s exertion in relation to their identified goals and by doing so make the individual, in a sense, their own support system. This digital partner can help individuals see themselves in an unflinching light that rewards progress, however small, and by illuminating daily goals can encourage even the most sedentary to become more active step by step. While this works for some, two problems emerge: data alone may not be a sufficient motivator for sustained change (fitness devices are great at reporting, but not always sufficiently encouraging), and by being a clique of owner and device, the fitness process does not inherently involve the advice or guidance of care professionals.
For medical, health, care, and activity professionals, wearables create their own set of problems. Fitness trackers are not qualified medical professionals, they lack a holistic view of their wearers, and they are not usually integrated into providers’ health records systems. As a result, the trackers cannot adequately coach or communicate with those who could best shape a fitness regimen to an individual’s needs. Moreover, what is a care provider to make of a patient’s fitness data? During a time-limited office visit, when faced with an encouraged (or discouraged) fitness tracker, and a wearer who is toting reams of highly granular digital activity data on their smartphone, how is a care provider to respond? They have neither the time to review it nor the clinical certainty that the data is meaningful, and may be at a loss to do more. They may fall back on traditional admonishments to ‘eat less and exercise more,’ waving away data that fails to communicate its importance in a clinically relevant manner.