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Exploring risks of using wearables and apps for fitness pursuits

Connected health technologies such as wearables and apps are designed to increase individual engagement in self-care and health management. For example, wearables, such as Fitbit, and apps, such as Couch to 5K, promote walking and running as a form of exercise to improve individual fitness.

These technologies have the potential to improve public health due, to their ability to reach a mass number of people, at a relatively low cost, to disseminate information and to engage consumers in health behaviour change. These technologies continue to increase in popularity, along with heightened commercial interest, forecast to reach $21.5 billion by 2018, which is an estimated growth of 54.9 per cent per year since 2013.

Nevertheless, it is possible that these technologies may have the unintended consequence for some people. There is a likelihood that the usage of these technologies become a stressor for some. Certain individuals may over-engage with these technologies and thus fuel the behaviour to over-exercise and become exercise-dependent to attain unrealistic fitness goals. This study seeks to investigate the potential dark side of these technologies.

Be wary of wearables, apply caution to apps: Sandy Fitzgerald.

To begin, popular wearables and apps are first identified and rankings of the device functionalities are presented. Respondents – 180 adults aged 18-plus – were asked what wearables and apps they normally use to prompt them to exercise. We found that a large number of respondents use Fitbit, followed by MyFitnessPal and Apple Health.

Popularity of fitness wearables and apps.

Respondents were then asked to rank the functionalities of wearables and apps. The below list shows the result. Devices that offer a smartphone app, that can evaluate and provide feedback on individual performance and that possess tracking functionalities (for example, counting steps) are ranked highly by respondents.

In contrast, the sharing capabilities such as the ability to post and share health performance, receive updates on friends’ or peers’ activities and performance, and to comment or acknowledge peer/friends activities are ranked low. This result suggests that people, by and large, download these technologies with the purpose to achieve an individual goal; for example, to increase and track exercise performance rather than a social need to share and compare their exercise performance with others.

It suffices to say that many of these wearables and apps will need to possess a range of these functionalities to remain popular among users.

Device functionalities

  1. Offers a smartphone app.
  2. Automatically tracks your behavior via smartphone or wearable device (for example, counts steps).
  3. Evaluates your performance.
  4. Enables you to set performance goals (for example, activity level and calorie intake).
  5. Can use manual entry to track behavior (for example, you can enter calories eaten or workouts/activities performed).
  6. Works with wearable devices (excluding smartphones).
  7. Offers a website, where you can access your activity and performance information through a standard web browser.
  8. Offers real world rewards for achieving performance goals (for example, cash and prizes).
  9. Can push reminders or notifications to wearable devices or smartphone via audible tone, physical feedback (for example, vibration/buzz) and visual display.
  10. Offers virtual rewards for achieving performance goals (for example, virtual trophies and medals).
  11. Allows you and your friends/peers to comment or acknowledge each others' activity and performance.
  12. Can show you updates on friends' or peers' activities and performance.
  13. Can post your activity and performance to others or other social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.

It is possible that the device functionalities could prompt certain individuals to become exercise-dependent in pursuit of fitness goals. Exercise dependency can be described as a compulsive engagement in physical exercise, despite negative consequences, such as exhaustion, physical and mental stress. An exercise-dependent individual exhibits behavioural (high levels of exercise frequency), psychological (strong commitment to exercise) and physiological (high physical tolerance and endurance) responses to exercise.

Given that the functionalities of these wearables and apps are to engage users to exercise more, this study investigates which functionalities positively correlate with exercise-dependent individuals. We found that three device attributes positively correlate with exercise dependency, namely:

  1. Offers a website, where you can access your activity and performance information through a standard web browser.
  2. One’s ability to show updates on friends' or peers' activities and performance on a device.
  3. Enables you to set performance goals (for example, activity level, calorie intake).

Unsurprisingly, goal-setting and real-time performance tracking correspond with greater levels of exercise dependency. This is because exercise-dependent individuals need personalised exercise data to inform them of their progress. Social features, which were not ranked highly in an absolute sense, also correlate with greater levels of exercise dependency.

This apparent paradox may be because social features disproportionately correspond with exercise dependence for only certain types of users. In other words, exercise dependent individuals particularly use the social platform to brag about his/her level of fitness to others.

While the benefits of using wearables and apps to improve and maintain fitness goals are evident, this study aims to caution users of the potential traps and harm of using popular wearables and apps in the overzealous pursuit of fitness goals through exercise.

Sandy Fitzgerald is a lecturer in marketing at RMIT University. Professors Mike Reid and Lisa Farrell, assistant professor Luke Kachersky, Dr Kaleel Rahmen and Natalya Saldanha contributed research to this project.

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