Sales of fitness trackers and smart watches have exploded in recent years. Last year, 274 million smart watches and wearables were sold worldwide, with that predicted to jump above 300 million in 2017. Once the domain of professional athletes or serious amateurs, devices with heart rate monitors, step counters and calorie calculators have become mainstream.

As with any new technology, schools are confronted with a familiar question; could this new tech enhance the teaching and learning of our students?

Do activity trackers influence behaviour?

Scientists are beginning to investigate whether these devices have the ability to change the way people behave. The initial studies have been positive. One study out of Tuffs University noted;

“adding trackers to wellness groups comprising primarily older adults with chronic medical conditions can support education and behavior change to be more physically active. The trackers increased participant self-efficacy by providing a tangible, visible reminder of a commitment to increasing activity and immediate feedback on step count and progress towards a daily step goal.”

Awesome! Activity trackers increased the awareness of physical activity and therefore had a positive effect on the amount of physical activity each participant did. However, this study lasted just 12 weeks. Others which have lasted longer are finding different results.

Another study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh followed participants for 24 months. They decided to split their participants into two groups. Group one had access to weight loss education, counseling and support. Group two had the same education, counseling and support but were also given activity trackers to measure energy expenditure and physical activity.

After 6 months, both groups had lost roughly the same amount of weight, on average about 8kg. Now is where things get interesting. The researchers collected data at the 12, 18 and 24 months, and found;

“the addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioral intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months. Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches.”

So not only did the activity tracker group not get an advantage from wearing the devices, they lost less weight than the non activity tracker group.


Activity trackers and schools

And this brings us back to whether bringing these devices into our schools would be something that could add value to a PE or health program. There is no doubt that being able to measure progress and get immediate extrinsic feedback can be an effective tool to continue to motivate participants. But I get the sense that this will only get our students so far, and will only work for so long.

For many, ensuring they get to 10,000 steps or burning 2,500 calories can motivate people to take the extra walk or the dog out for a run or to take the stairs. But I don’t believe this extrinsic motivation is sustainable in the long term.

To be a lifelong, physically active person, you need to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be healthy. You need to understand how it feels, what it allows you to do and how it affects all aspects of your life. A watch can’t tell you that the calories you’re burning in your early morning workout will help your brain concentrate and fire for the rest of the day. It can’t tell you that you’ll live longer and feel happier. Those intrinsic benefits need to be understood and felt by a student in order for them to truly comprehend why included physical activity in their lives every day is important.

So are activity trackers worth our time (and a place on the booklist) as PE teachers? Personally I’ll be aiming to teach my students the importance of lifelong activity and the feeling of well being, without relying on daily stats and metrics these tackers and watches provide.

Feel free to browse the links below used in the writing of this article.


NY Times; Activity monitors may undermine weight loss

Wearables sale numbers

University of Pittsburgh study

The Guardian: Health tracker sales increase despite lack of evidence

Tuffs University study

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