The adage of regular, moderate exercise and a proper diet being the simplest, surest ways to remain healthy still guides many people in their day-to-day health routines. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week, which amounts to about 7,000 to 8,000 steps per day—about 1,000 to 2,000 more than the average American walks daily, according to the Washington Post. But sometimes a healthy lifestyle isn’t easy to achieve and people fall short of hitting those goals.
This is why fitness trackers and mobile health care apps (also known as mHealth) have sprung into the marketplace with vigor. Throughout the last few years, fitness and diet trackers have been trying to shake us of these distractions and make living a healthy lifestyle easier and more intuitive to your personal daily schedule. And they work great while people actually use them. The problem is that people aren’t using these tools for long.
The biggest arguable benefit of mobile health fitness wearables is that they get you thinking about your health and get you closer to reaching that 150 minutes threshold. Whether it’s a device like Fitbit that tracks your steps and heartbeat, or jogging at home on a smart elliptical machine, because you’re consciously monitoring how much exercise you’re getting through these devices, it turns out you’re taking a step in the healthier direction. The monitoring aspect of these devices is why they are beneficial. Now previously mundane tasks like parking the car far away, taking the stairs or walking to the local grocer, become more opportunities to reach your daily exercise goals.
This gamification is the initial draw for many users, but Eric Hekler, an Arizona State University assistant professor who does mHealth research, says this alone isn’t enough, and he’s seen a drop off in fitness app engagement after about three months. And a survey by Endeavour Partners shows that more than 33 percent of fitness wearables users stop using the product entirely after six months. Hekler says to support user engagement these products need to provide a continuous amount of value compared to the amount of burden — even if it’s a small burden — being placed on people.
If mHealth products require that patients constantly monitor the device and do other seemingly-menial tasks, then their results are going to suffer and the likelihood of continuous use decreases dramatically, Hekler says.
There are a few methods to increase consumer engagement with their fitness tracker: data usage, interface and challenge ratings.
The data usage is the biggest long-term goal of fitness wearables. People are given — and relinquish — millions of data bits while using these devices. But this data doesn’t actively translate to anything actionable. Developers and researchers are still trying to figure out algorithms to make the mountains of data they collect actually usable and useful. Once the devices can accurately tell a user exactly what they need to do to achieve a goal, and then turn that goal into a game or challenge for motivation, the longer these tools will be used.
Another method Hekler is researching is creating a system that is smart enough to automatically get out of its own way, quiet down and adapt to something new once users get to a steady state. “Basically we’re trying to build out systems that will only ping you if you need it,” Hekler says. “We are doing things like exploring how to have systems ramp up and ramp down to each person based on their own progress and achievements as well as set-backs and life circumstances.”
Mobile health fitness trackers have the potential to open a lot of doors to better health for users, but users need to stay engaged enough to continue using them. Fitness is a life-long goal. Slipping up is easy, but the benefits severely outweigh the efforts. We have the technology; now we only need to convince ourselves to stick with the routine.