You may have noticed during the rare quiet moments of the 'Bake Off' after show 'Extra Slice' that Jo Brand was sporting a Fitbit. All credit to her for not just presenting a great show, but for fearlessly showing that she wants to improve her health. Yet recent research suggests that the use of wearables has not been as effective as using a website for support when attempting to lose weight! But before we abandon wearables and invite Jo Brand to throw her Fitbit at the wall, you might want to know a little more about this research.
For one thing, we are talking about research conducted some time ago, from 2010 to 2012; it started the same year Apple introduced the iPad. The research relates to Bodymedia's FIT tracking armband and Bodymedia are no longer in business. An excellent review of the research by mHealth Intelligence highlights how uncomfortable the armband was for at least a quarter of users, very different from the wrist devices of today. But even comfort is only one factor that makes a difference in our engagement with wearables; how attractive they are matters too. 'mHealth programs fail when they're intrusive, uncomfortable or don't keep the user's interest beyond an initial honeymoon period'. And it is the last issue, of keeping the user interested that seems to me to be key to our engaging in programmes that improve our health and happiness. How to stay interested? The answer is we need to get active, that is mentally active in our use of wearables. In this way we move from beyond simple 'gamification', of rewarding behaviour to understanding the processes that might have enabled those using Websites to make more progress. So how can we understand this?
I have learnt a great deal this year working with immersive platforms like ProReal who use engaging landscapes and simple avatars in their work with young people or adults in work. The initial response is to think that there should be more; a fully immersive virtual reality headset, more objects, different landscapes, but that would destroy its power. ProReal is technologically advanced but leaves space for you, and this is how it can fire the imagination and allow thoughts, feelings and situations to be created. It's apparent restrictions become the very tools that stimulate something in us and we become far more active mentally. It is this very activity that fires progress and development, whether about how you feel or how to resolve a problem at work. Progress flows from co-creation between ourselves and machine.
Perhaps those using websites would have pursued a more active engagement with their programme and been less 'passive' than those nudged or monitored by their FIT armband. The risk with wearables is that we devolve too much power to them and lose that sense of agency where we feel good at achieving something; feeling you can master something is key to well-being.
Of course wearables can be really helpful when we are flagging, but they are there to serve, not replace what you want to achieve. And when we do something with the technology, it can make a huge difference. Think of the pleasure people get from vinyl records again, and lifting the arm onto the record, compared with a streamed playlist on your phone; it becomes an event.
So don't give up on your Fitbit, but make sure you make time to think about how you use it, and whether it has started to become the dominant partner as you seek better health and well-being.
You'll get more from it if it is part of your programme, and to mix-metaphors, is not top dog.