Activity Trackers Don’t Always Work the Way We Want Them To
November 21, 2017

Comparatively speaking, young people in the United States and England do not move much. Studies indicate that most children reach their activity peak at about age 7 and become more sedentary throughout adolescence. Many parents probably hope that shiny new technologies, such as Fitbits and other physical-activity monitors, might inspire our children to become more active.

But a recent study published in The American Journal of Health Education finds that the gadgets frequently have counterproductive impacts on young people’s attitudes about exercise and the capabilities of their own bodies.

The new study, conducted by psychologists from Brunel University London and the University of Birmingham, involved 100 healthy boys and girls ages 13 and 14 from two middle schools in England. The schools were far apart geographically and socioeconomically, representing a broad cross section of adolescent society.

The researchers began by interviewing the young people and asking them to fill out psychological questionnaires about how they felt about exercise and their fitness. Then the scientists gave everyone an activity monitor, which came preprogrammed with a goal of 10,000 steps each day. The users’ activities could be recorded on a “leader board” shared with friends, which would show who had been the most and least active.

The teenagers were asked to use the monitors for two months, and then complete more questionnaires and participate in focus-group discussions. During the focus groups, almost all the young people expressed initial enthusiasm for the monitors and said they had at first become more active.

But the allure soon faded. After about a month, most of the teenagers had begun to find the monitors chiding and irksome, making them feel lazy if they did not manage 10,000 steps each day. Many also said they now considered themselves more physically inept than they had at the study’s start, often because they were rarely near the top of the activity leader boards. Most telling, a large percentage of the adolescents reported feeling less motivated to be active now than before getting the monitor. (The researchers did not directly track changes in the young people’s activity levels, because the study focused on psychology.)

The problem with the monitors seemed to be that they had left the teenagers feeling pressure and with little control over their activities, as well as self-conscious about their physical abilities, said Charlotte Kerner, a lecturer in youth sport and physical education at Brunel University London, who led the study. The result was frustration, self-reproach — and less, not more, movement.

You can’t just give a child a Fitbit for Christmas and expect them to be active,” Kerner said. “They will need educating on how best to negotiate the features.” Nudge them to set realistic step counts and other fitness goals, she says, and to consider whether they want to share their results with friends. For many young people, fitness may be better achieved in private.