Fitness gadgets 'discourage pupils from exercising'

Wearing a Fitbit makes teenagers less likely to leave the sofa...and more likely to feel guilty about it, research suggests

Adi Bloom

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Fitbits may be encouraging competitive adults to count their steps every day, but they are discouraging secondary pupils from exercising, a new study suggests.

Demand for a Fitbit, the wearable activity tracker, increased significantly among secondary pupils last year, and the gadget was considered a status symbol for teenagers.

However, a study by academics at Brunel University found that wearing a Fitbit for eight weeks demotivated teenagers from exercising, rather than encouraged them to do more.

The academics examined the effects of wearing a Fitbit on 84 Year 9 pupils from schools in the South-East and North-West of England.

'I just sat at home all day'

They found that teenagers who were wearing the Fitbit felt less confident about their competence at exercising and less connected to their peers. They also felt that they had less autonomy than before in their choice of how and when to exercise.

And, while the researchers noted a short-term novelty effect, which meant that some Fitbit wearers were more active for the first few weeks of the study, the participants quickly became bored. After a month, levels of physical activity declined.

“I did it for four weeks, and then the last couple of weeks I just sat at home all day,” one participant said.

The Fitbit app includes features to encourage interaction and competition between users. Many of the pupils involved in the Brunel study said that they did set up friendly competitions among their peers. However, instead of motivating the teenagers, this competitive element merely meant that they felt guilty about their failure to exercise.

'It put them off exercise'

Charlotte Kerner, who conducted the research, said that peer comparison was a key factor in undermining pupils’ motivation. “There wasn’t a desire for our participants to be more active for themselves and their own goals, or for fun,” she said. “It was simply because they wanted to beat their mates.”

She said that the Fitbit’s predefined daily target of 10,000 steps was also demotivating: “They strived to achieve it, but would often fall short. This made them feel really bad about themselves, and put them off exercise.”

The researchers added that digital technology would be best used by PE teachers to provide personalised individual goals for pupils, rather than forcing them to compare themselves against generic goals.

The motivational impact of wearable healthy lifestyle technologies, by Charlotte Kerner and Victoria Goodyear, is published in the American Journal of Health Education.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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