Sales of activity trackers booming, but more research is needed on their benefits

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Sales of activity trackers booming, but more research is needed on their benefits

Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, Ph.D., FACSM |  Nov. 27, 2017

Activity trackers (ATs) are once again at the top of the ACSM fitness trends (clocking in at #3 on the 2018 list). Why is this? With 80 percent of the US population failing to meet the recommended cardiorespiratory and resistance training guidelines, maybe people are looking for a different and/or more convenient way to motivate themselves toward a healthy lifestyle. activity tracker

It is hard to research ATs in this world of changing technology. We do not know if wearing ATs changes behavior over time (the research is mixed and not very robust) but we know the business of ATs is booming. It is expected that ATs will generate $53 billion in sales by 2019, and an estimated 75 million people will use an AT by 2021!

Has technology invaded the fitness world much the same way it has invaded many other aspects of our lives? The real question is: IS THIS HEALTHY AND DO THEY WORK TO SUSTAIN A LIFESTYLE CHANGE? Currently we do not have enough research to say one way or the other.

Two past HFJ articles on ATs by Segar (1) and Kiessling et al. (2) shed some insights on this dilemma. Segar, a motivation scientist at the University of Michigan, suggested ATs, although valuable tools, are only tools, and that something additional must be included to provide motivation (1). Segar believes ATs do not address behavior change sustainability. She suggests you must realize WHY you want to move BEFORE you start counting steps.

Kiessling et al. (2) initiated a Ready to Move (RTM) program combining activity tracker usage with health coaching (2). The health coaches were students enrolled in a course that taught motivational interviewing and behavioral intervention strategies. The students were encouraged to address clients’ core motivations for movement. Participants in this program did experience success in learning about the devices, and they stated that they enjoyed the freedom the device allowed for fitting movement into their day.

A research focus that includes behavioral components of the impact of ATs might help us to understand their effects. Technology continues to challenge us to look at new and different ways to accomplish goals. What we do know is that ATs (whether accurate or not) have intrigued us to count steps, self-motivate, and participate in social challenges with others to move more and sit less.

If this top ACSM trend is going to continue, our hope is that researchers focus on a behavioral/social perspective and research the impact of ATs on sustainable behavior change. For now, let us appreciate that ATs are here to stay whether we like them or not (and whether they are accurate or not). One thing is for sure; they cost less and are much easier to transport and move than weights and treadmills. In addition, they remind us that there is more to health and wellness than movement/exercise alone since they also track sleep, getting up regularly, and other health parameters.

  1. Segar M. Activity trackers and motivational science. ACSMs Health Fit J. 2017; 21(4): 8-17.

  2. Kiessling B, Kennedy-Armbruster C. Move more, sit less, be well. Behavioral aspect of activity trackers. ACSMs Health Fit J. 2016; 20(6): 26-31.

Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, Ph.D., FACSM, is a Senior Lecturer within the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has worked in both the private and university setting during her 30 years in the fitness/wellness industry as an educator and supervisor of fitness staff. She has taught/created academic courses on group leadership, personal training, and fitness management and produced books and DVD’s on group exercise, water exercise and functional exercise progressions. Shehas served on multiple editorial/review committees and advisory boards during hertenure as a member of ACSM. She has presented both nationally and internationally on various fitness/wellness topics and is certified as a Group Exercise Instructor & Health Fitness Specialist.