Are you sporting an Apple Watch, FitBit, Oura Ring, or other smart wearables? If so, you’re not alone. Many of us have been lured into the magical world of biotrackers and wearables by the promise that personal data will give us the ability to change our behavior and increase our health and wellbeing. But do they work? Are they actually good for us?
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Using Data to Change Behavior
Biotrackers reflect our increasingly data-driven world combined with the age-old passion for self-improvement – now through self-knowledge gained by personal data.
The sophisticated biotrackers of 2022 have a long and illustrious history evolved from old-school manual tracking based on stopwatches, thermometers, and pen and paper to track our health, exercise, and diet logs. Now we have device-enabled automatic data collection—measuring ourselves and sometimes even others.
In 2013, Pew Research reported that 69% of US adults keep track of at least one health indicator—weight, diet, exercise, or physical symptoms (Fox & Duggan, 2013). Now, nearly ten years later, one in four US adults have data tracking capacity, whether they use it or not, wearing a smartwatch such as the Apple Watch or Fitbit (Vogels, 2020).
That doesn’t count the data collection on apps like WW, MyFitnessPro, Inner Balance, or exercise machines like the Peloton or the rising popularity of the Oura Ring and Lumen metabolism monitor. The devices are also now linked; the watch or treadmill connects to an app, and apps share data with each other.
Data By Itself Isn’t Useful
But let’s be honest. Data all by itself isn’t helpful. We have to analyze data to turn it into meaningful, useful information that, hopefully, gives us insights that empower or motivate change. And increasingly, our devices don’t just collect; they have built-in algorithms that generate whole new metrics for our entertainment and inspiration. For example, the Oura Ring tracks “readiness,” the Lumen “metabolism.”
The Benefits of Biotrackers
Evidence suggests that for many, biotrackers work well. They motivate by increasing accountability and engagement. They can provide a sense of accomplishment by documenting our effort in real-time and over time and rewarding us with digital prizes and badges. Biotrackers are structured to facilitate implicit and explicit goal setting that helps users identify and visualize desired outcomes—a technique often integrated into wellness strategies. Increasingly, tracking devices reflect our online social world by including the ability to identify friends, send messages, link, share, and compete with others, all of which make use more compelling. They can also function as an “early warning system” by providing vital health information. In one study, an algorithm taking heartrate and activity data from smartwatches anticipated the onset of COVID-19 (Alavi et al., 2022).
The Potential Downsides of Trackers
Even though wearable tech research reports few negative consequences, people vary in their response to data quantification. Setting your “ideal weight” can be motivating or demoralizing, depending on your level of aspiration vs. realism. Ironically, trackers take a bit of self-awareness to reap the benefits. A reasonable goal demands a level of honesty to separate an achievable goal from self-sabotage. When you get it right, it creates self-rewarding goal attainment and the upward spiral of positive emotions that encourage resilience and positive self-esteem and provide fuel for future undertakings. Not so if you set yourself up to continually miss the mark.
There are several legitimate concerns. For example, some personality types, like those low in conscientiousness or openness to experience, can find tracking stressful rather than motivational. Trackers can also make it harder to listen to your body. For some, the ability to see stats increased activity but decreased enjoyment by focusing attention on data rather than noticing, much less smelling, the roses (Ryan et al., 2019). Data tracking raises concerns among some medical professionals that the preoccupation with data might encourage exercise dependence or trigger unhealthy targets and social comparison among those with a tendency toward obsessive or compulsive behaviors.
Biotrackers Only Work if You Pick One You’ll Use
But past the honeymoon stage, biotrackers only work if you use them. Sure, they will track, but they don’t do the work for you. Ironically, these tools intended to provide self-knowledge—require self-awareness so you can invest in one you’ll actually use. Are you social? Do you like proof of progress? Do you enjoy tracking goal achievement? You have to figure out what types of feedback motivates you. “Motivational designs” vary: Some focus on gamification of data with badges and hurdles, some excel in reporting real-time data reporting, some integrate a social component, and some have a bit of all three (e.g., Hamari et al., 2018).
With a Tracker, You Are Researcher and Subject
Using any biotracker is essentially a research project with you as the subject. As with all research, you have to determine how you will use the data before you start collecting it. Otherwise, it’s just an expensive bauble with useless data that will end up collecting dust on your dresser. While there’s nothing wrong with trying out a device, budget willing, the question to ask yourself is if the device serves a useful purpose or helps you make better choices no matter what you’re measuring.