When wearable fitness devices (a.k.a. “wearables”) first hit the scene, they offered the prospect of a cure-all for obesity, inactivity and our general sense of unhealthiness. Scores of people went out and got Fitbits and Apple Watches. The number of connected wearable devices worldwide is expected to jump from an estimate of 325 million in 2016 to over 830 million in 2020.
Wearables provide measures on everything from steps taken, heart rate, calories burned, and time sleeping. Unfortunately, a growing body of evidence suggests that wearables aren’t living up to their promise. In fact, some studies even suggest that wearables lead to decreased levels of activity. But how could this be? This is the age of the “Quantified Self.” Nearly every aspect of our life can be digitized, quantified, and analyzed. We have more information about our bodies than at any time in history. What accounts for the failure to turn all this data into improved health?
All data, no action
For all their sophisticated gadgetry and sharp looks, the makers of wearables seem to have ignored the most obvious factor in designing for behavioral change: human behavior. Data alone is not a solution nor a strategy to get people to change their behaviors. A fitness tracker may look sharp, but wearing one won’t help you avoid the tempting donut shop you pass on your morning commute or motivate you to go for a run on a frigid winter morning. So what will?
Just a number
Most of us have heard that we should strive to take 10,000 steps a day. It might surprise you, however, to learn that this is not an official recommendation, but part of a 1960 Japanese marketing campaign designed to sell a new brand of pedometer, called the “Man-Po-Kei” (which roughly translates to “10,000-step-meter”). Indeed, so catchy and memorable was the number that, to this day, most wearable manufacturers continue using it as the default goal for their users. 10,000 steps may be perfectly reasonable if you’re active, but it’s probably far too few if you’re training for a marathon, and too many if you haven’t been getting any exercise at all.
It’s the environment, stupid
Fortunately, behavioral scientists have long known that a key factor to effective behavior change is environment. For example, depending on the type of behavior we’re looking to change, we can design our environments to make it easier to do the things we want to do more of (get off the bus early to walk more) or more difficult to do the things we want to do less of (change our route so we don’t pass the donut shop pumping out the smell of deliciousness).
Rather than mindlessly taking 10,000 steps a day, we might start off by thinking about why we want to take more steps in the first place. What is our goal? Here again behavioral science can help by steering us towards goals that will improve our wellbeing. Maybe you want to lose weight or get fit. Those are certainly worthwhile goals, but what does it mean to “get fit’”? How much weight do we want to lose? Upon further inspection, those goals are a bit too vague. We’re much better off selecting a single goal with a clear target and a set deadline (like “lose 15lbs by the beginning of summer” or “complete a marathon in under 4 hours in the next 6 months”). Setting a clear target is important because it lets us know when we have, or have not, reached our goal.
If our goal happens to involve more steps, we ought to create a strategy that gets us started and keeps us going. Unfortunately, most wearables weren’t – and still aren’t - designed to help us do that.
Rather than running out to buy the latest fitness tracker, behavioral science would recommend thinking about the small changes that go into accomplishing the big goal we wish to achieve.
- Adopt clear and simple rules known as Bright-lines to make it easy to know when we’ve transgressed (no sugary drinks at work or always take the stairs) and reduce the burden of having to remember what we should and should not be doing.
- Create tiny habits from rules around trigger behaviors we’re already doing (“Every time I use the bathroom, I’ll do 5 pushups” or “After I brush my teeth, I’ll floss one tooth.”)
- Reframe how we see ourselves, how we view the nature of exercise, and even the control we have over our decisions. (“It’s not that I can’t eat that slice of cheesecake, it’s that I choose not to.”)
- Make one time changes that don’t require the effort of establishing a new habit in the first place (like replacing tableware with smaller plates)
Once we’ve established our plan, we need to ensure that we’ll keep to it. Here again, wearables are likely to let us down. In fact, studies indicate that, after a year, half the people who buy a wearable stop using it. A wearable isn’t going to be much use to us if it’s collecting dust on our dresser. (Editor’s Note To Self: Fitbits for Roombas. Surefire hit, retire rich.)
Research shows that we’re more likely to stick with our program if we:
- Publicly share both our specific plan (go to the gym for 30 minutes a day, 3 days a week) and larger goal (lose 15lbs by summer)
- Leverage what behavioral scientists have learned about loss aversion and put money on the line to keep us motivated
- Get social, by enlisting the support of friends and family
- Going a step further, we’re even more likely to stick to our plans if failing to do so means supporting an anti-charity - a cause whose values we disagree with
A ray of hope
Obviously, there’s an appetite for tools and strategies that make it easier for us to accomplish our goals. Wearables offer the promise of a simple fix, in the form of an attractive gadget that fills our friends with envy. That’s why they’re so popular. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting weight loss and improved fitness to be less painful. Wearables were an admirable first attempt at using data to get people moving, but they forgot about the people part. Time and research have produced greater insights on how to blend the people – the science of human behavior - with the data. With any hope, the wearables of the near future will mix the two and create something truly special.
Mark Lush Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent Allstate’s positions, strategies or opinions.