Fitness trackers and motivation: go beyond daily goals

As the last holiday shopping season showed as, as well as CES, wearables are here. The wide variety of fitness trackers range from cheap ones that track steps and the more expensive ones that track heart rate, a variety of exercise types, and calorie intake. Yet the accompanying apps tend to focus on activity tracking and goal setting with the hope that showing users what they’ve achieved will motivate them to go out and do more. Yet, setting a daily activity goal is usually focused on doing a certain amount of steps or some proprietary measure like “points” or “fuel” that, in my opinion, tend to be more confusing than motivating.

The New York Times reported on different studies done to get people to go to the gym more more often or even just to continue to go after the resolve of the New Year’s resolution wears off. After trying a variety of models it turns out that one of the more successful motivators involves money and is has two parts: the first to get people to start exercising and the second to continue going. For four weeks a company paid its employees to work out and then employees set aside their own money which would be given back to them if they went to the gym in the following two months. Otherwise it would be given to charity.

Well, it turns out that this relatively short three months plan is enough: “Even though those commitment contracts ended three months after the start of the study, the effects on workout frequency persisted for years: Three years after the study, the workers who had been offered the contracts remained 20 percent more likely to work out than those who had not been offered any incentives.” A complicated plan, sure, yet it seems to work.

But then, the article made this point about gyms and how they currently support, or not, continued exercise: “They have a little bit of a conflict of interest,” says Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago. The fact that lots of people join gyms and rarely go to them isn’t great for our national waistline, but it’s pretty good for people who own gyms.”

Misfit's app: is this supposed to get me to run?

Misfit’s app: is this supposed to get me to run more?

Fitness trackers and their apps have no such conflict: once a user buys a tracker, then there is no financial upside to be gained (or lost) if the user actually exercises more. Yet, most fitness tracking apps are not yet focused on motivation beyond goal setting, and this is an area where they could really make a difference. Fitness apps can and should look beyond the obvious goal-tracking metrics and get into the real motivation. If holding money in trust for a user if they exercise works well as a motivator, then offer that option. Build it into the app by having users deposit a certain sum and choose a charity of their choice for the forfeited sums to go to.

Finally, fitness trackers offer a wonderful insight into exercise habits of a large number of users. Users might want to opt to participate in more studies that might really offer a clue as to what motivates long-term exercise commitment, as complicated as it may be. After all, an app that can motivate users to exercise more and really get fit can certainly drive future growth.

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