2013 was the year that health and fitness devices and smart phone apps really burst into the mainstream. With 2014 New Year’s resolutions kicking into high gear and Weight Watchers and Bowflex ads flooding TV screens, it’s time to take a look at what role fitness technology can and should play in your life. If you spend any time on social media, you’ve likely seen a constant stream of app and device promotion from tech developers and health professionals, including tech-savvy physicians.
Some devices, such as Fitbit, are wearable, wireless technologies that track personal activity metrics, such as the number of steps taken, or the amount and quality of sleep. Another example is Strava, a website and mobile app that uses GPS to track athletic activity. While both technologies are interesting, neither addresses the problem of getting people to “engage” and improve their lifestyle management, with the long-term goals of reducing disease risk and improving quality of life.
Fitness technologies work best for people who are already motivated and have a disciplined fitness routine. For most people, particularly those who have not yet discovered how to motivate themselves, fitness tech devices are the electronic equivalent of the millions of unused treadmills and elliptical trainers cluttering many American basements.
To help explain the role technology should play in your 2014 fitness resolutions, I enlisted the help of Vik Khanna, an experienced health and fitness consultant and popular blogger. As Khanna explains, “Relying upon fitness tech without a plan and solid motivational foundation is like aspiring to build a secure retirement but worrying about which mutual fund to choose, even though you have neither a budget nor savings.” He offered six critical health and wellness challenges that fitness devices and apps simply can’t do for you.
1. Prioritize your goals. Devices don’t know you and can’t help you define your aspirations. You have to do that yourself, perhaps with the help of a physician, personal trainer, or just a friend or family member with more experience. You must understand what you need to do and why, as well as how to prioritize between different healthy lifestyle strategies. This will help to determine what your short-term and long-term plans look like and enable better decision-making about what fitness technologies to use.
2. Develop a plan. This is best done with an old-fashioned paper and pen, or better yet, your calendar. Fitness tech devices track what you’ve done, but they can’t intercede between you and your family and work demands. For most people, this is the single most challenging step because plans not only have to be strategically and methodologically sound — they also have to be flexible and adaptable. That’s an intricate dance in most people’s lives. Unfortunately, apps don’t dance (yet).
3. Build determination. In our current culture, it’s much easier to blame than to take responsibility. However, a long-term, sustainable fitness routine is driven by personal grit. Driving yourself to stop bad behaviors is tough enough, but doubly so when you do it for the approval and satisfaction of others, instead of doing it because it’s good for you. Likewise, trying to change because your workplace wellness program is giving you money is a minor, dispensable motivation that will rapidly wane. It pales in comparison to the major motivation derived from increased self-respect.
4. Recognize your own efforts. No fitness strategy is perfect, and everyone plateaus, usually below their desired threshold. No fitness app can deliver a pat on the back and provide the emotional reward of knowing that you’ve done all you reasonably can within a given period. Getting to that level of self-satisfaction requires making a substantial effort, and only you can know when you’ve really given something your all.
5. Practice positive “self-talk”. Few things are as damaging to a strategy for personal change than negative self-talk. Self-talk is something quite different from the canned positivity of technology that “talks” to you or delivers e-badges as you blow through different goals. It’s one thing to have your app say, “Wow, you’re doing great” in your earbuds, and quite another to have your inner self praise your progress and encourage you to push yourself harder and farther. The first is amusing, the second is empowering.
6. Make course corrections. Injuries, illnesses, and work or personal crises happen. So, too, do unexpected achievements that require strategic calibration. You must have the skill and determination to keep going, whether you need to take time to recover or, in other cases, accelerate your plan. Either will require revisiting all the other challenges above.
Khanna added that everyone needs to “focus on the fundamentals, and once you master those, have fun figuring out which fitness technologies to use, recognizing that they are mainly accessories. If you don’t or won’t master the fundamentals, the best technology in the world isn’t going to help you meet your fitness goals.”