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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Activity trackers could be agents of behavioural change
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Activity trackers could be agents of behavioural change

These wearable gadgets have done some good but a new strategy may vastly boost their efficacy

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

Insufficient physical activity is a major health threat. As countries develop economically, due to changing transport patterns, increased use of technology for work and recreation, sedentary behaviours and levels of inactivity increase. A striking finding is that physical activity has declined among adolescents aged 11 to 19 years by roughly 30% within the span of a single generation. Among adolescents, declines in physical activity are directly correlated with increases in the use of smartphones, tablets, video games and social media.

According to a World Health Organisation report, almost 500 million people will develop heart disease, obesity, diabetes or other non-communicable ailments attributable to physical inactivity between 2020 and 2030, costing $27 billion annually, if governments don’t take urgent action to encourage more physical activity among their populations. It is in this context that the influence of activity trackers on physical activity should be evaluated.

The global wearable activity-tracker market has grown tremendously. Worldwide sales of fitness trackers increased from$14 billion in 2017 to over $36 billion in 2020. Between 2014 and 2020, the number of wearable activity trackers shipped worldwide increased by an estimated 1,444%. The skyrocketing success of these gadgets suggests that more and more people see some value in keeping tabs on the number of steps they take, flights of stairs they climb and calories they burn. But have these activity trackers really changed individual behaviour and made people more physically active?

A meta-analysis study, ‘Effectiveness of wearable activity trackers to increase physical activity and improve health’, by Ty Ferguson and others was published recently in The Lancet. According to this report, activity trackers were found to have improved physical activity, body composition and fitness. On average, people were taking approximately 1,800 extra steps per day, walking 40 minutes more daily and had reduced their body weight by about 1kg. Effects on other physiological (blood pressure, cholesterol and glycosylated haemoglobin) and psychosocial (quality of life and pain) outcomes were typically small and often non-significant. Activity trackers appear to be effective at increasing physical activity across age groups . The benefits are clinically important and have been sustained over time.

That is good news. In times when the overall behavioural trend was moving towards physical inactivity, activity trackers have helped stem this tide, even if only in a small way so far. The product is clearly emerging as a potential behaviour-change agent. Already, several steps are being taken to integrate activity trackers with healthcare systems. For instance, healthcare providers such as medical doctors and physical therapists integrate wearables into their therapy plans, and health insurance plans offer premium discounts to those customers who use wearables. So the obvious next question will be about the next steps that could be taken to further raise the behaviour changing potential of activity trackers.

Today, most activity trackers are doing a good job of setting clear daily goals. This goal setting exercise could move to higher levels of commitment if health goals are set among a small group of people who matter to you. Commitments made to others who one cares for tend to elicit better adherence than those made only unto oneself. The drive to achieve these goals would be stronger if they are emotional in nature. Setting a target of walking 10,000 steps a day is one thing, but when that goal is articulated as an attempt to shed 1cm around your waist and fit into your favourite attire, for example, than the motivation to achieve it becomes even more evocative.

The stage that determines the success or failure of activity trackers is not so much the goal-setting part as the point when these goals are to be executed. When a wake-up alarm rings in the morning, you will either continue sleeping or get up, put on your walking shoes and begin taking those much-needed steps. During the day, many occasions will arise wherein your higher-order goals, offering delayed benefits, conflict with lower-order temptations that offer immediate benefits, such as an extra hour of sleep or not having to take the stairs to reach the office canteen. It is at these moments that the success or failure of an activity tracker is decided.

Academic work by Kristian Ove R. Myrseth and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago and Yaacov Trope of New York University reminds us that when faced with short-term temptations, individuals are capable of proactively employing self-control strategies to guide behaviour toward long-term interests. So one needs to identify these self-doubt moments and develop appropriate micro messages, ideally ones that work within milliseconds, to activate the counter balancing mechanism in our brain that can nullify the pull of immediate rewards. Once this process is repeated a few times, instant gratification will seem less valuable and also less tempting. Artificial Intelligence could play a critical role in getting the placement of these micro messages in sync with the arrival of short-term temptations.

In activity trackers, we have a good thing going. These gadgets have a great opportunity to transition from being just passive data providers to active and useful instruments for behaviour change. However, a lot more will have to be done for them to serve as effective behaviour-change agents.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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Published: 02 Nov 2022, 11:19 PM IST
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