We humans love to make New Year’s resolutions; there is just something about the New Year that fuels our optimism and our belief that we will be able to improve upon our previous year. Two of the most popular resolutions every year are to lose weight, and to generally become more active and fit. However, recent survey results suggest that only 49% of resolution-makers even have infrequent success, and only 8% of resolution-makers report actually achieving their resolution on a consistent basis.
Since many of us want to lose weight and/or become more fit, in recent years consumers (myself included) have been purchasing activity monitors (such as FitBit, Jawbone, Gear Fit, Mistfit, and Smartband) to help them keep track of their fitness progress. Essentially, these activity monitors count steps and measure the amount of one's vigorous activity during the day, allowing for the more accurate estimation of the number of calories individuals burn. There are also other aspects to many of the devices, such as the ability to compare your physical activity to friends, track food and drink consumer throughout the day, set explicit weight or activity goals, and receive real-time feedback relative to those goals.
Now, there is some evidence from individual studies that monitoring one’s physical activity is linked to increased physical activity over time such as here and here. But, in recent years work by Susan Michie and her colleagues (here) have more systematically explored how best to increase physical activity and improve dietary choices.
The researchers were able to collect data from 101 previous experimental studies where participants (44,747 people across the 101 studies!) experienced a behavior change technique, also called an intervention, that aimed to increase their eating behavior, physical activity, or both. Michie and colleagues filtered through each study and coded each type of behavior change intervention used, categorizing studies into use of interventions such as getting people to form intentions to change their behavior, providing information about how dieting or physical activity leads to positive health outcomes, supplying general encouragement, asking people to set explicit goals, or teaching people how to deal with relapses during goal pursuit. In total, across the 101 studies they coded for 26 different types of behavior change interventions (take a look at the full list in this article).
Then, with this mountain of data and these types of interventions coded, they were able to analyze the data all at once to determine what leads to the greatest increases in healthy eating and physical activity. What did they find? The interventions that focus on what are called “self-regulation techniques” led to the largest increases in health eating and physical activity. In particular, what they called “self-monitoring” was the most effective technique, which is when researchers ask people to keep track of their actual behavior. This self-monitoring strategy was even more effective when combined with these other self-regulation techniques: (1) encouraging a person to decide to act or set a general goal (e.g., "I will become healthier"), (2) getting a person to form specific goals (e.g. "I will walk 10,000 steps a day" or "I want to lose five pounds"), (3) let people know how well they are progressing toward their goals, and (4) allow for the perpetual reviewing and adjusting of goals and/or behaviors over time.
So, do activity monitors actually help you become increase your physically activity?
The present research provides strong evidence that not only do activity monitors help people engage in more physical activity, but they do so through use of some of the most effective behavior change intervention techniques known to scientists. Most importantly, they focus on the measurement of one’s actual physical activity (self-monitoring). In addition, they also potentially get people to form behavior intentions, they ask people to form physical activity and weight goals, they provide feedback on how you physical activity relates to your weight goals, and they give you the opportunity to constantly evaluate your progress, allowing you to make adjustments to your levels of physical activity and your weight goals.
However, the social sciences are complex, and additional questions always remain. Who has the most success using these devices? How do we help those who are resistant to the positive effects of these devices capitalize on this technology? And how might other components of these devices, such as social comparison opportunities, influence behavior and health outcomes?
What do you think?