“Oh man, I forgot to wear my Fitbit® today! Now that walk I took at lunchtime won’t count.” “I left my Jawbone® home; if I can’t track my walk, I might as well not do it.” Sound familiar?
Sales of fitness wearables are skyrocketing. People are raving about these stylish bracelets and clip-on trackers as if they’re the Holy Grail of fitness and weight loss… until the novelty wears off. Organizations are buying devices for all employees and expecting 1-size-fits-all results. Some employers even require achievement of an arbitrary step goal for premium discounts or cash prizes.
There are benefits; fitness wearables provide a relatively objective measure of daily activity, they’re fun to use in well-being challenges, plus they can make tracking progress easy and motivating. But not for everyone.
Friend or Foe?
When HR and well-being professionals set an expectation that devices are a magical, end-all solution for everyone, they do participants a disservice. As is the case with many aspects of health and well-being, the people are different concept applies here:
- You can’t make me. Many people enjoy exercise for its own sake; this reinforces a consistent habit of physical activity, day after day, year after year, no tracker needed… or wanted. Requiring an already-active individual to don a device for reward eligibility is a fool’s errand; it’s a waste of money and is unlikely to cultivate fondness for your program.
- Yes, please. Many fitness newbies enjoy tracker feedback at first, and find themselves moving more to accumulate steps, badges, or other rewards; but they’re often distracted from noticing the immediate mental and physical perks. This is also the group that tends to feel exercise doesn’t count without the tracker. Sadly, dependence on external motivators for physical activity doesn’t lead to lasting behavior change.
- I love it. I hate it. Fitness enthusiasts who enjoy data-tracking might love fitness wearables. Some find the visual support of graphs, badges, social features, and rankings exciting. Others find, after a while, that trackers suck the fun out of being active… when they realize they’re exercising for the numbers instead of the joy of movement and that upbeat, after-workout vibe.
- No, thanks. Aiming in the general direction of fitness — moving more every day, without tracking steps, miles, minutes, or goals — is best for some. There are people, for example, who struggle with body-image issues or obsessive-compulsive conditions. And some folks are sick and tired of being judged by themselves or others for who they are and everything they do.
- Who needs it? Feeling discouraged when step goals aren’t achieved drives some to ditch their devices. Being more active or less active on different days or weeks is normal; trackers demand consistent daily performance at a specific level. The message? If your bracelet doesn’t buzz or you don’t see the smiley face, or you’re in last place, you didn’t make the mark. People who are just getting started, with shaky confidence in their ability to exercise, are especially vulnerable to feeling bad about their efforts. Getting chided by a small electronic device doesn’t help.
The truth is that wellness and HR leaders can’t possibly know what’s best for each individual they serve. Trusting individuals to decide for themselves if trackers will be helpful or not makes a lot more sense than assuming they’re a great idea for everyone.
A Better Path
We all want people to become more active in sustainable ways; we want them to know how being strong and fit feels… to be able to enjoy a walk or hike on a beautiful day and to have the health and stamina to pursue the quality of life they desire. Getting fit, staying fit is hard enough; the last thing participants need is for fitness wearables to undermine their efforts. But it happens.
Help your population adopt a realistic, practical view of fitness wearables by promoting these devices as tools to use in ways that are meaningful for them. Here’s how:
- Endorse voluntary use. It’s no secret that adults thrive under conditions of autonomy and respect. Forcing someone to wear a tracker says we don’t trust you — do this or else.
- Advocate a healthy perspective. Teach participants that — like any type of activity, equipment, sport, or gadget — wearables are enormously helpful for some, but aren’t for everyone; they can be especially useful when beginning a fitness habit, but there’s no need to wear them forever. If workers find they prefer to use trackers only periodically, or not at all, that’s OK. If they want to wear them all the time and throw down daily challenges to friends and coworkers, great. They get to decide how — and if — to use the device.
- Encourage tracker breaks. To counter a feeling of dependence on trackers, reassure participants that exercise does indeed count even when they’re not wearing one; no one needs it to experience the benefits of even a single exercise session. It all counts. If participants are feeling a little too attached to their trackers, suggest they take a break and instead focus on how being active makes them feel. Imagine.
Fitness wearables, by any indication, are here to stay. They can be an effective impetus for change. But many wellness participants stand to benefit from weaning themselves off the devices and experiencing exercise for the life-giving force that it is.