Experience Life Magazine

Fitness 2.0: Wearable Technology Can Help Improve Your Health

Can the increasing popularity of activity trackers and mobile apps alter the public’s approach to personal health and help foster habit change?

Fitbit One

The Fitbit One is just one example of wearable technology that’s on the market today. It tracks steps, calories, flights of stairs climbed, miles walked, and sleep. (Image via Fitbit.com)

It’s been a little over a decade since lighting up became a societal taboo, all but legislated out of existence by a passionate public relations campaign founded on solid data about how the habit destroyed the lives of smokers and nonsmokers alike. Art Markman, the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, believes public health advocates must now bring the same sense of urgency — and savvy, evidence-based messaging — to health issues that revolve around topics such as weight management and physical fitness. And he believes technology could play a huge role in such a campaign, thanks to the proliferation of personalized activity trackers and mobile apps.

At the 21st Annual SXSW Interactive Festival, in fact, there are a number of workshops focused on the collection of personalized information. Public policymakers are leading discussions centered on how increasingly sophisticated streams of data can help maximize doctor-patient interactions while minimizing waste, an overarching goal of the Affordable Care Act. Digitally savvy entrepreneurs, who flock to the Austin-based festival each year to network and dream big, are all but salivating over market share. And the programming folks are geeking out on the rapid improvements in personalized design and usability.

What Markman is most interested in, however, is how data can help inform better decision making, which is why he was asked to join three other panelists for 2.0: Shaping Healthy Behaviors: moderator Christopher Glode, general manager at MapMyFitness; Tim Roberts, vice president of interactive at Fitbit; and Martha Wofford, vice president of CarePass at Aetna.

The key to improving public health, the panelists all agreed, is to first figure out ways to get people to eat smarter and move more. The next step is to turn these short-term behavioral changes into habit. In both cases, portable data-collection devices have already shown potential.

“Self-awareness equals engagement,” said Glode. His point being that most of us aren’t aware of how much (or little) we move day-to-day. We’re also unlikely to know how many calories we’re consuming or burning, the quality of our sleep, or the effect stress has on our systems situationally. Because wearable technologies log this basic information, just turning them on can begin to create a sense of urgency.

Tracking data also reaps fairly immediate rewards, which can put people on a track toward healthier behaviors, according to Markman, who regularly blogs for Psychology Today and Huffington Post. The reasoning is as basic as it is human: “People are wired to do things that feel good now, not later,” he says. If they are able to see how many steps they’ve taken or calories they’ve burned — if they’re able to see tangible proof of their efforts in the now — they’re more likely to be motivated.

The problem is that the initial rush of this sort of change can fade over time, whether we have a cool gadget tracking our movements or not. That’s why devices and applications that have a social element stand to be the most effective as the marketplace evolves. “Accountability is one of the most powerful incentives for behavior change,” Markman explains.

If we’re left to our own devices, we’ll come up will all sorts of reasons to skip that walk or choose a refined carb over a fresh vegetable. But if we’re comparing notes with a friend via Twitter or Facebook, we might think twice before hopping off our respective wagons. “A little friendly competition is great,” Markman says. “It’s a great way to engage with people in a healthy way.” (Roberts agrees, pointing out that his company has seen a 27 percent increase in Fitbit use when people share information with friends.)

Believe it or not, it also helps when devices take a little work (or as the panelists say, “friction”). If the devices are too user friendly, if they don’t require some sort of frequent engagement, most folks will forget they’re there. That’s why people who digitally log what they’re eating every day tend to experience tangible progress. “A little friction and accountability” goes a long way, Wofford says.

Technologically, the devices have evolved quickly. Everyone on the panel pointed out, however, that the standard data and its interpretation is fairly basic. Its quality and depth will need to improve significantly before it can have a meaningful impact on how people are diagnosed and treated by doctors — a process that could take between five to 10 more years of development and political maneuvering. Which is why, for now, Wofford and Markman are particularly keen to get users to share their personal data with their trainers and workout buddies.

“We all have to come together to think creatively about how to inspire people,” Wofford told the audience. “We have a ways to go, but we’re working on it and we’re getting there.”

David Schimke is Experience Life's editor in chief.

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