While critics have debated the effectiveness of activity trackers, a recent study by faculty in the Indiana University School of Public Health – Bloomington found activity trackers can work, if paired with wellness coaching. The study was published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal.
“We found that a combination of giving someone the device and then pairing them with someone who can help them learn how to use it actually works,” said Dr. Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, senior lecturer at the IU Bloomington and co-author of the study.
The study, co-authored by Mr. Brian Kiessling, associate instructor and Ph.D. student within the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Department at the IU Bloomington, focused on how people regard activity trackers, how the trackers affect behavior, and how they can be effectively integrated into programs that help people increase movement in their lives.
Dr. Kennedy-Armbruster and Mr. Kiessling used two years’ worth of data collected from IU’s Ready to Move program, which pairs students with IU employees. The student/employee teams meet a minimum of eight times during a 10-week period for coaching sessions, and participants are given a Fitbit to help track their movement.
Over the two-year span, 173 IU Bloomington employees participated. Coaches focused, in part, on how activity trackers affected participants’ behaviors in combination with student coaching.
Throughout each 10-week period, the student coaches helped participants establish a baseline number for the amount of steps they would like to achieve in a day. Participants then tracked their movement using a Fitbit, gradually increasing their goals and therefore their movement throughout the day.
According to a pre-program survey, 83 percent of participants had used a tracking device before, most using a pedometer. In that survey, participants said they believed an activity tracker could help serve as a motivator and reminder to move.
At the end of the 10 weeks, participants said the activity trackers did serve as a reminder and motivator and were easy to use. Ninety-three percent of participants also agreed that working with a student coach helped them develop effective health and fitness goals, and 90 percent agreed that a combination of that coaching and a fitness tracker helped them sustain their health goals after coaching ended.
By combining coaching with the device, Mr. Kiessling said many employees were able to view movement outside the traditional idea of exercise involving a gym, strenuous cardio and weight lifting. The trackers allowed them to visibly see how everyday movement counts, which resulted in employees finding creative ways to take additional movement breaks throughout the day.
“We relieved a lot of stress for people,” Mr. Kiessling said. “Participants would say ‘I drive by that fitness center every day and I feel bad.’ But this program helped them realize they can do this on their own during the day. It opened up a whole new way of thinking about movement. The activity tracker, in combination with the support from their coaches, really made that possible.”