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How effective are movement and fitness trackers?

Jawbone Up

The Jawbone UP. (Photo: Numrush.nl)

 

Health and fitness data-tracking devices are everywhere. You can spot Jawbone’s UP bracelets on everyone from Tribeca moms frequenting Bari Studio to Tasting Table employees, and Nike FuelBands and FitBit Flexes now look at home between bangles on CEOs’ wrists. Nike is releasing a new-and-improved version, the FuelBand SE, on November 6.

And these are not just running watches. They quantify your workout-to-work behavior in an all-encompassing way, tracking calories burned, how many steps you take, how many minutes you sit without getting up, and how many times a day you daydream about pizza. (Okay, I made that last one up, but it’ll probably be released next year.)

The question is: Do wearers even know what the numbers mean? And if they do, will the quantification of their behavior help them live healthier, happier lives? We chatted with experts and those who’ve tried the tracking tools to gain some insight.

Nike

Serena Williams shows off her FuelBand in a campaign for Nike. (Photo: Blog.tennisround.com)

Information gathering

For some people, tracking devices are little more than a source of interesting information they’d like to have on hand about their day and habits. “I don’t wear it every day, and it’s not so much for me to reach goals, but just to see what the patterns are,” says Kahina Giving Beauty founder Katharine L’Heureux, whose husband gave her a Nike FuelBand for her birthday in early October. “I don’t think I’m going to wear it forever; it’s just good to have this information.”

Get-healthy motivation?

But for most people, serious habit redux is the end-goal of wearing a tracking device. “From a behavioral psychology standpoint, just wearing it on your body could be a motivator. But what we find is that different people are motivated by different things,” says Chris Downie, the founder of SparkPeople, a website that helps individuals reach health and fitness goals and makes its own device, the Spark Activity Tracker. (Downie is also speaking on a panel called “Is Tracking for Everyone? How Wearable Computing is Changing Fitness,” at this weekend’s Health Interactive conference in Los Angeles.)

“Some people are extraordinarily motivated by data,” Downie explains, while others may be more motivated by social cues, like a BFF to run or lift with, or situational goals, like looking great at a wedding. Figuring out your personal motivators is the first step in determining whether a tracker will work for you.

Putting the data to work

If you are motivated by numbers, having them will still only get you so far. “Like anything else, it’s not the device that’s going to change the behavior, it’s the individual,” says People’s Bootcamp founder Adam Rosante, who is speaking on the same Health Interactive panel. “The two biggest hurdles are the ability to take action and maintain consistency.” So going from “My UP says I don’t walk enough” to “I’m going to walk a half a mile on my lunch break” to “Now I’m doing it every day.”

Pitfalls to avoid

What makes this even more difficult, is that you need to stay committed to the action without letting the numbers overwhelm you. Feeling overwhelmed by a flood of data can lead to paralyzing inertia, Rosante says, as can diving in too deeply. “It’s like a sprint,” he explains. “What will happen is that people obsessively track every single thing, and they get so burned out, they fall off the rails completely.”

In the end, the key is to “find something that’s simple, helps you align with your goals, and keeps you motivated over the long-term,” he says. Whether that’s a FuelBand or a trainer who inspires you. —Lisa Elaine Held

Have you used a tracker? Tell us if it’s helped you reach your health goals, in the Comments below.