A Bit More Fit

The science behind your sports tracker.

Illustration by John Hersey

So the gift Santa Claus brought you creepily knows when you’ve been sleeping, it knows when you’re awake, and it knows when you’ve been bad or good about reaching 10,000 steps. You’re hoping that the device, using the latest advancements in wearable monitoring technologies in combination with the most effective cognitive behavior therapy techniques, will inspire you to get in good shape for your own, and perhaps your family’s, sake.

Remember when you believed Saint Nick was monitoring your behavior? Omniscient, cloud-based life coaches bearing rewards really can make effective behavior-modification devices, can’t they?

Recent scientific research concurs. There is much health to be had (and much money to be made) when unobtrusive, cutting-edge, wearable smart technologies can be merged successfully with long-proven motivational techniques. “The tech can help motivate, but research is making it clear that even the best tech doesn’t work for most people unless there’s an extra psycho-social component,” says Margie Lachman, director of Brandeis University’s Lifespan Developmental Psychology Laboratory.

Margie Lachman

Photo courtesy of Brandeis University

The good news from Lachman’s research over the last decade: Well-designed sports tech—whether it’s an activity-tracker on the wrist, a cutting-edge “smart shirt,” or a stationary bike at home linked to a virtual coach at a gym—really can help you. The bad news: Even the most expensive, super cool doo-dad is likely worthless without the consistent drumbeat of old-school motivational techniques. “Once the novelty wears off—and it always does at some point—there has to be something else that keeps you going,” says Lachman.

In Lachman’s most recent study, 60 middle-aged working adults were given a fitness tracker (Fitbits, in this case, but she says any quality activity-tracker will do) and tasked with increasing their daily step total by 2,000 after each of five weeks. (For example: 6,000 steps each day the first week, 8,000 steps each day the second week, and so on.)

Thirty participants were left alone with their Fitbits and their five-week training regimens. The other 30 participants were called or emailed each day by researchers to check on their exercise progress. Like any good coach would do, researchers complimented success and worked to motivate a participant if they had fallen short of their goals. Along with the personal interactions, too, researchers provided participants with maps of good potential walking routes and other small exercise aides. 

Members of both groups did relatively well at hitting their goals during the first two weeks. After the second week of their new exercise regimen, though, participants who had no outside support broadly began failing to meet goals, while those with support from researchers broadly continued on a path to meet their five-week goals.

However, Lachman checked back with the participants several months after the study—and the motivating oversight—had ended. “Most everyone had gone back to his or her original level of steps from before the study,” she says. “Those gains from intervention ended when the intervention ended.”

Beyond slipping back to old habits, many of even the most involved participants stopped wearing their watch-like devices. Many people simply don’t like having something strapped to their wrist, nor do they like having to recharge a device every few days. Lachman and other researchers have consistently found that, very often, the road to health gets blocked because the device itself is just too much of a hassle.

That’s where the researchers at Virginia Tech’s Electronic Textiles Lab step in. While Lachman zeroes in on identifying the most effective motivational techniques to keep people exercising, Tom Martin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the Virginia Tech lab, works to make the smart tech itself as unobtrusive and omniscient as possible. “The first wearable device I worked on in the early 1990s weighed 10 pounds, used big lead acid batteries that took eight hours to charge, and had to be carried around in a heavy hard-shell fanny pack,” Martin says. “It’s been a race toward smaller and smaller and smarter and smarter ever since.”

Now, Martin has raced past your Fitbits and Apple Watches to the frontier of wearable smart tech. Perhaps the only computer engineer in America with a loom and embroidery machine in his office, Martin is now hand-weaving a multitude of electrically conductive fabrics capable of being both easy-to-wear clothing and comprehensive biometric monitoring devices. (In November, for example, Martin was at his loom perfecting a garment fabric incorporating cutting-edge stretchable sensors recently created by researchers in Minnesota.)

Martin is focused primarily on developing comprehensive, wearable monitoring devices for safety and medical purposes. Martin and his partner, Mark Jones, currently have a project funded by the National Science Foundation that, according to Martin and Jones’ grant application, “pursues the design of garments for ambulatory health monitoring that have the look and feel of everyday clothing, together with an approach to monitoring that removes some of the barriers to patient compliance by automatically annotating physiological data with activities and motions, collecting data only during specific conditions, and having minimal impact on daily routine.” “This project,” Martin says, “addresses the challenges of providing garments that look and feel like everyday clothing by developing design and evaluation methodologies for incorporating fiber-based sensors into garments.”

Peloton spin class.

Photo courtesy of Peloton

What’s all this have to do with your exercise regimen? 

In five or 10 years, this Virginia Tech fabric will likely be in some astonishing device you’ve put on your Christmas wish list. That “monitoring that removes some of the barriers to patient compliance” means the fabric would be ideal for New Year’s resolution compliance. “It’s pretty simple: The technology doesn’t help if it doesn’t get used,” Martin says.

Fitbit Charge 3

Photo courtesy of Fitbit

Even though their roles in the development of impactful monitoring devices are very different, Lachman and Martin come to very similar conclusions on what you’ll need to succeed in your reenergized effort to get healthier. If you’re going to incorporate—or even lean on—new devices to motivate you, make sure you’re comfortable using the device. Make sure any wearable tech fits your body and your fashion sense, and make sure your body fits any new sports equipment that promises—like the wildly popular Peloton exercise bikes—to engage you in a virtual coaching world. “The tech can’t be a nuisance,” Martin says. 

Then, make sure you’re comfortable with the device’s smart technology. The same device can seem wholly intuitive to one user while it may baffle, and ultimately stifle, someone else. Do a little shopping and testing. (Meaning, re-gift or return any Christmas present that isn’t a good match.)

Finally, be ready to go old-school. What behavioral change strategies have worked for you in the past? Set realistic goals that excite you. Plan to run your first 5K in the spring. Plan to fit into your favorite shorts by summer. 

And be willing to lean on other people to reach your goals. Maybe find a real or virtual coach. Definitely find a pal—or hook up with any number of countless groups of similarly minded athletes online—to exercise with or, at the least, report workouts to. 

As Lachman’s research has proven, it really does help to have someone who knows when you’ve been good or bad. “Strategies such as goal setting, self-monitoring, feedback, rewards, social support, and coaching seem to be especially helpful in increasing activity and healthy behaviors,” Lachman says. “We need to keep searching for that perfect mix of technology and successful motivational techniques.” 


Photo courtesy of Lifefuels

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This article originally appeared in our February 2020 issue.

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