Do fitness trackers and their apps really help consumers with exercise, diet, and other health goals? 

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, said James, an associate professor of business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business.

James, whose research interests are broadly in the area of data analytics and include the psychological effects of technology use and how it changes human actions and interactions, 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,” she says. 

Her findings can help companies understand how to develop their fitness technologies or customize usage suggestions for exercisers with different motivations toward exercise.

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.”

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. 

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,” said James.

The key take-away 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.

Read more about James’ study, including some unexpected results and how she was intrigued by a New Yorker essay by David Sedaris about his Fitbit, in the fall 2018 issue of Virginia Tech Business magazine.


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