Fitness trackers are adorning many a wrist, as consumers seek technological assistance with exercise, diet, and other health goals. But do such devices and their apps really help?

Virginia Tech researcher Tabitha James has found that they can contribute to well-being, depending on how they are used, and that how they are used depends on the person’s motivation toward exercise.

This means that not all people may benefit from using fitness technologies in the same way, says James, an associate professor of business information technology, who co-authored a recent study exploring exercise motivations and the use of wearable fitness technologies and their apps.

“Wearable devices and apps offering various features to support exercisers have flooded the marketplace, but little is known about how individuals use them and how that use may contribute to well-being outcomes,” James says.

“We need a better understanding of how individuals’ exercise motivations influence their use of fitness technology features and how such features influence wellness outcomes.”

Categorizing motivation

Scholars have categorized motivation as intrinsic or extrinsic, based on whether it is internally or externally derived. “Intrinsic motivation is when you exercise because you enjoy it. Extrinsic motivation is when you exercise because you are responding to external pressure.”

As an example of the latter, James says she likes to use an image of a cyclist being chased by a bear, with the caption, “sometimes you find motivation, sometimes motivation finds you.”

In addition to the intrinsically motivated, James’ study examined four subtypes of extrinsically motivated exercisers (based on the degree to which their motivation is internalized), and a sixth type — those with no exercise motivation at all.

Associate professor Tabitha James views a student team project. (Photo by Natalee Waters.)
Associate professor Tabitha James views a student team project. (Photo by Natalee Waters.)

Her study also examined three groups of fitness technology features: data management, exercise control, and social interaction. These features allow users to track and analyze performance data, manage goals, search for information, obtain reminders and rewards, get coaching, and integrate social sharing, comparison, encouragement, and competition.

“Our study showed that people with different motivations toward exercise used different features of fitness technologies,” James says.

The key take-away, she says, is that users should customize their use of the devices and apps to suit their personal characteristics rather than just use them out-of-the-box.

“People should consider what they enjoy and what may keep them engaged. Some people enjoy exercise, some enjoy socializing their exercise. Some like to know their exercise is paying off, and it is important to them to understand the progress they are making toward goals. I would recommend that people take the time to learn about the different features of fitness technologies, and use those that may have the best chance of keeping them engaged with both the technology and exercise.”

Getting an unexpected result

One unexpected study result was the popularity of the social interaction features, such as virtual challenges and leaderboard rankings — they appealed to more exerciser types than the other feature sets.

That data management features were not more widely used also surprised James. “Prior research suggests that competence-supporting feedback, which the data management features could provide, should enhance intrinsic motivation, and so the expectation was that they would appeal to the more self-determined exercisers.”

James says her study’s findings can help companies understand how to develop their fitness technologies or customize usage suggestions for exercisers with different motivations toward exercise.

Exercise control features, she says, are currently the most prominent ones in fitness technologies — users are sent a reward badge when they exceed a certain number of steps, or reminded to stand or take more steps. Her study results, however, showed that only two of the extrinsic subtypes were likely to use them. “Exercise control features, as currently designed, may not be the best feature set for most exercisers.”

Responding to technology

When James first started exploring this topic in 2014, wearables like the Fitbit were relatively new. She was struck by the different responses such technologies evoked, as reflected in the popular media.

Among her favorite pieces is a New Yorker essay by David Sedaris about his Fitbit. “He explained how he would go out for extra steps after he had already taken 12,000, because his Fitbit thought he could do better.”

Other writers, however, were lamenting about how delightful walks were turned into forced marches in pursuit of a specific step count and how their Fitbit took the fun out of something they enjoyed.

James, whose research interests are in the psychological effects of technology use and how it changes human actions and interactions, was intrigued. “Fitness technologies are a control that a person chooses to use to help manage an activity. It seemed that some people were responding positively to that control, and others were not.”

One explanation might be that “people had different motivations toward the activity they were trying to control — exercise, in this case — and those differences led them to use the technologies in different ways and experience different outcomes.”

Prior research on exercise motivation has primarily looked at the extent to which motivations predict exercise behavior, James says. “Our study is the first to examine the influence of exercise motivations on the way fitness technologies are used.”

James co-authored the study, “Using Organismic Integration Theory to Explore the Associations Between Users’ Exercise Motivations and Fitness Technology Feature Set Use,” with fellow Pamplin faculty members Linda Wallace and Jason Deane. Their study will be published in Management Information Systems Quarterly.

—By Sookhan Ho

Technology use and us

For Tabitha James, the psychological effects of technology use, how it changes human actions and interactions, offer fascinating possibilities for enquiry.

“Technology facilitates an increasing amount of our communication and socialization with others. We also increasingly rely on technology to support many of our other daily activities, such as shopping, entertainment, and exercise.”

“Relying on technology in so much of our activity is bound to have a cascading impact on other aspects of our lives. For example, if we can order our groceries through an app, we lose the steps we would have taken walking around the grocery store and the chance social encounters with neighbors we might have had.”

As another example, James notes that socializing online offers both opportunities and dangers – “such as being able to curate the persona we present to others, enlarging the size of the audience we can potentially reach, or making it difficult to completely remove content we later regret posting.”

Technology’s effects on behavior may lead to new social norms and societal changes, she says.

“We are only starting to realize how the insertion of technology into our everyday lives will ultimately shape how we live and interact with each other.”