Study finds benefits of fitness trackers, apps depend on motivation and customization

fitness trackers

Associate professor Tabitha James listens as student Allen Fuller makes a point during an informal Q&A session following student project presentations in her graduate class on business information visualization and analytics.

Do fitness trackers and their apps really help consumers with exercise, diet, and other health goals?

Virginia Tech researcher Tabitha James has found that they can contribute to well-being, depending on how they are used, and that how they are used depends on the person’s motivation toward exercise.

This means that not all people may benefit from using fitness technologies in the same way, said James, an associate professor of business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business.

One unexpected study result was the popularity of the social interaction features, such as virtual challenges and leaderboard rankings — they appealed to more exerciser types than the other feature sets.

That data management features were not more widely used also surprised James. “Prior research suggests that competence-supporting feedback, which the data management features could provide, should enhance intrinsic motivation, and so the expectation was that they would appeal to the more self-determined exercisers.”

Exercise control features, she says, are currently the most prominent ones in fitness technologies — users are sent a reward badge when they exceed a certain number of steps, or reminded to stand or take more steps. Her study results, however, showed that only two of the extrinsic subtypes were likely to use them. “Exercise control features, as currently designed, may not be the best feature set for most exercisers.”

James, whose research interests are broadly in the area of data analytics and include the psychological effects of technology use and how it changes human actions and interactions, co-authored a recent study exploring exercise motivations and the use of wearable fitness technologies and their apps.

“Wearable devices and apps offering various features to support exercisers have flooded the marketplace, but little is known about how individuals use them and how that use may contribute to well-being outcomes,” she says.

Her findings can help companies understand how to develop their fitness technologies or customize usage suggestions for exercisers with different motivations toward exercise.

Scholars have categorized motivation as intrinsic or extrinsic, based on whether it is internally or externally derived. “Intrinsic motivation is when you exercise because you enjoy it. Extrinsic motivation is when you exercise because you are responding to external pressure.”

In addition to the intrinsically motivated, James’ study examined four subtypes of extrinsically motivated exercisers (based on the degree to which their motivation is internalized), and a sixth type — those with no exercise motivation at all.

Her study also examined three groups of fitness technology features: data management, exercise control, and social interaction. These features allow users to track and analyze performance data, manage goals, search for information, obtain reminders and rewards, get coaching, and integrate social sharing, comparison, encouragement, and competition.

“Our study showed that people with different motivations toward exercise used different features of fitness technologies,” said James.

The key take-away is that users should customize their use of the devices and apps to suit their personal characteristics rather than just use them out-of-the-box.

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