Good morning, lazybones! Can activity trackers motivate?

Spontaneously putting just a few questions to acquaintances shows that opinions are divided on the usefulness of trackers: some people are interested in exploring them, while others perceive them as unnecessary, or, in the worst case, a burden. The researchers at the information technology institute OFFIS have been investigating what lies behind individuals’ subjective perceptions over the past years. They have conducted in-depth studies analyzing why and how trackers are used.

OFFIS researchers have analyzed qualitative data on general tracker usage, periodic changes, and overall changes over the course of time in more than 100 individuals over a period of two and a half years and examined these findings in detail in a number of studies, some of which are still unpublished.[1][2][3][4][5][6] This press release provides some excerpts from their analyses.

Who are the users?
Their average age is considerably older than 40 years. The users are therefore not sport-loving 20-year-olds, as might be believed at first. A fundamental openness toward technology is crucial in users. Technology-interested users appear to be more willing to use a tracker as the initial software installation on a smartphone or PC is a hurdle that may be small but still one that has to be overcome.

How are trackers used?
There are some “power users” who use their tracker every day from morning to evening for many months. But the majority of users show more sporadic usage behavior, which can be divided into a large number of different behavior patterns, for example:
– Some use their tracker for a few days and then abandon it for a couple of days—here the primary desire appears to be a reward for good behavior in the form of a high step count in the tracker.
– Others take longer breaks, but then wear their tracker regularly for a few days again—indicating a desire to confirm a subjective perception about their own behavior with objective measurement.
– Another group use their tracker for just a few weeks before abandoning it—these users found no value in using it.
There is therefore no single right way to use a tracker. Each user has his or her personal preference.

Are trackers useful?
Encouraging users to engage in physical activity is not the only reason for using trackers. Many users would like to understand their own behavior better and identify correlations between different values, such as activity and weight. The data collected can offer very useful assistance when taking decisions that impact on their own health. For some, it is the final trigger that motivates them to finally buy a dog so that they get out regularly, while for others the analyses can even be a reason to change a job that they not only do not like but is also unhealthy. As a part of their personal health records, the data can also provide potentially important indicators for their health and sickness in the future.

What can trackers actually do?
Almost all activity trackers claim that they can also measure sleep. They are worn on the arm and measure movement during the night. This may work surprisingly well, but it is hardly very comfortable or practical. Anyone interested in measuring sleep should use other special devices in which thin measuring strips or mats are stuck to the mattress or placed underneath it. This will ensure that they are not disturbed while they are measuring how long and how deep they sleep. Other values are also measured, including night-time resting heart rate—an important measure of fitness for exercisers—and changes in respiration rate—which can be an important warning sign for some with chronic illnesses.

Of course, there are now connected devices for all the “classic” health indicators, such as weight, body fat percentage, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Measurement results are recorded automatically, meaning users no longer need to keep journals, incorrect entries are reduced, and slow changes such as creeping weight gain are identifiable over time.

And will I get fitter?
The first thing to note is that an activity tracker is just one tool among many. And basic step counters costing just a few dollars have been on the market for a long time. But connecting the devices to apps and web services—and the more in-depth data collection that goes with it—does provide a new level of quality. Changes and correlations are clearly identifiable. However, whether this has an effect on the user and whether he or she takes more exercise as a result depends on many factors:
– One of the most important factors is whether the user actually wants to change. If not, a tracker will be of no use. A tracker alone will not turn a couch potato into a marathon runner.
– But if the willingness is essentially there, objective measurement is highly likely to lead to a change in behavior. Individuals are more likely to aspire to a given goal, such as doing 10,000 steps a day, when their current behavior is somewhat but not too far removed from it already. Ambitious but realistic goals are an important point here. And those who reach their goal are pleased to receive regular rewards for good behavior from their tracker.

Activity trackers are certainly not magic weapons against a lack of exercise and excess weight. Whether they are effective depends firstly on the user and his or her willingness to allow them to be effective. But they can undoubtedly be highly effective tools for managing personal health and well-being.

Your direct contact for any queries:
Jochen Meyer, Director R+D Division Health
OFFIS – Institute for Information Technology, Escherweg 2 – 26121 Oldenburg – Germany
Tel: +49 441-9722185

Further information:
1. Jochen Meyer, Elke Beck, Merlin Wasmann, and Susanne Boll. 2017. Perceptions of Long Term Monitoring to Support Wellbeing. The Lotus Study. In in preparation for: PervasiveHealth.
2. Jochen Meyer, Wilko Heuten, and Susanne Boll. 2016. No Effects But Useful ? Long Term Use of Smart Health Devices. In Ubicomp/ISWC’16 Adjunct.
3. Jochen Meyer, Wilko Heuten, Jochen Schnauber, and Susanne Boll. 2016. Langzeitnutzung vernetzter , persönlicher Gesundheitsgeräte Long term use of smart health devices. In VDE-Kongress.
4. Jochen Meyer, Jochen Schnauber, and Wilko Heuten. 2016. Long Term Use of Smart Health Devices for Supporting Healthy Living Early Findings from the Lotus Study. In Adjunct proceedings of 11th International Conference on Persuasive Technology, 26–29.
5. Jochen Meyer, Jochen Schnauber, Wilko Heuten, et al. 2016. Exploring Longitudinal Use of Activity Trackers. In Procedings of IEEE ICHI – International Conference on Healthcare Informatics, 198–206.
6. Jochen Meyer, Merlin Wasmann, Wilko Heuten, Abdallah El Ali, and Susanne Boll. 2017. Identification and Classification of Usage Patterns in Long-Term Activity Tracking. In CHI ’17 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Founded in 1991, OFFIS is an internationally active research and development institute specializing in selected information technologies and practice-oriented IT research fields. Its staff of around 250 bring together technology and sector expertise in energy, health, transportation, and other fields in an average of 70 ongoing research projects.
Further information can be found online at:

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