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The psychology of activity trackers: how do they encourage long-term behavior change?

Kin Orb Training

How activity trackers encourage positive, long-term behavior change

Activity trackers can be a core component of any wellness program. Though they are a relatively new arrival to the health and wellness sector, as of 2014 they were already being worn by one in ten over-eighteens in the United States, alone. Both small and streamlined, these smart devices provide up-to-the-minute intel that can be transmitted to a smartphone app or browser. From there, variables such as activity intensity or steps per day can easily be monitored, helping wearers to establish both long and short-term goals.

The benefits of such a data-driven approach to fitness seem almost obvious. But as well as ensuring an accurate reading of the amount of activity undertaken each day, there is a notion these devices add an additional level of reward, incentive and support. Yet what evidence actually supports this position? More importantly, how do activity trackers help encourage positive behaviors in the long term?

Does accountability equate to action?

Many schools of thought behind activity tracking state that the devices enable a level of accountability that will then turn into action. By closely monitoring just how much activity is done in a day, the wearer of a tracker will be given the tools to set their own goals or targets, and stay in tune with their wellness regime. This idea is further compounded by studies that show people regularly overestimate the amount they exercise. Yet to analyse this link between measurement and motivation, it is important to look at how activity trackers work. Take, for example, the average, older adopter of an activity tracker, aged 45-54. A tracker not only allows them to review their activity levels, it allows them to discover exercise in the most unlikely of places. From doing the housework to having a snooze, it all counts towards the number of calories burned. It may come as a surprise to the wearer just how much exercise they undertake without even really realizing.

Aside from unveiling activity levels in unlikely places, a tracker lends an element of fun to what could be a monotonous routine of monitoring activity levels. This is compounded by a sense of reward and accomplishment when tracked goals are broken – such as walking a record number of steps per day, or burning a large number of calories. Yet with statistics that show half of US consumers who have owned an activity tracker no longer use it, it becomes clear that a sense of achievement alone perhaps isn’t enough to motivate long-term behavior change.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

The interesting thing about using an activity tracker in conjunction with a wellness program is that they tap into both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation is influenced by external factors, such as earning points on a game, or sharing on social media to gain ‘likes’. Intrinsic motivation occurs on a deeper level, like playing an instrument for personal enjoyment, or participating in an event because it is found to be exciting.

On the surface, swapping trips up in the elevator for the stairs might not seem like a powerful tool for behavior change. Yet these simple steps are all accounted for by the activity tracker and work towards a bigger picture that shows progression as well as achievement. With goals to smash and targets to unlock, as well as social media sharing with peers, it could be argued an activity tracker works well as an extrinsic motivational tool.

In a wellness program, the wearer of an activity tracker is able to utilise this extrinsic instrument to measure some intrinsic motivations. Sleep, nutrition, mental wellbeing and activity levels are the key focus in any well-rounded wellness program, defined as being paramount to health. By adopting a tracker, the wearer is given the ability to get more in step with their most intrinsic self, and has the tools to make some real changes.

In combination it’s clear – these two elements are a powerful combo. Yet why does the source of motivation really matter?

The key to long-term behavior change

Positive reinforcement is not a new concept. Corporations readily offer up end-of-year bonuses or perks for meeting performance targets, as a form of reward as well as an incentive to others.

Yet a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives made a bold claim: incentives don’t actually work to modify behavior patterns in the long run. For instance, if the monetary reward for completing a particular project was less than that of another project, it could have a negative impact upon motivation. Or, incentives were fine when motivating in the short term, yet weakened those longer-term intrinsic motivations.

When applying this to wellness, it can be argued that short-term motivations alone do not encourage long-term behavior change. The power of those extrinsically motivating factors discussed earlier, such as – ‘you walked a record number of steps!’ – will begin to diminish once that feel-good dopamine dies down. However, when these motivations are applied towards an all-encompassing wellness program that assesses all areas of fitness, lifestyle and wellbeing, positive habits become normalised. As the tracker reports on and reinforces those habits, it also encourages more meaningful and permanent intrinsic change.

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