Spending money on activity trackers only to use them for a few months and then loose them in a dresser drawer is somewhat akin to spending money on a gym membership only to stop going to the gym after a few months. It leaves people with the feeling of money and effort wasted and wellness goals unattained—yet again.
However, individuals who combine wearing a fitness tracker with guidance from a wellness coach tend to get better results and wear the tracker for longer, according to a recent study. And that information is something health club operators can use to increase member retention and member satisfaction.
One-third of people abandon their activity trackers six months after first using them, according to a 2014 survey by Endeavour Partners, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based strategy consulting firm.
However, when a wearable fitness device is paired with someone knowledgeable about the device and fitness, then use of the activity tracker increases, according to a study published in the American College of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Journal.
Two instructors in the Indiana University School of Public Health conducted the study in which kinesiology students met with university personnel who were given a Fitbit Flex. During eight meetings over 10 weeks, the students explained the options on the device and how to use them, as well as reviewed data to improve workouts or to increase activity.
Ninety-three percent of the 173 participants (87 percent were women and the average age was 47 years old) said that working with the student coach helped them develop reachable goals, and nine out of 10 said pairing trackers and a coach helped them continue their healthy ways after the coaching ended, according to two years' worth of data.
"What I learned is the tech industry overestimated our ability to use these devices," said Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, one of the study's authors and senior lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University. "We spent a lot of time teaching the participants how to use them."
Kennedy-Armbruster is authoring another study that checks up on the participants three years later. Preliminary data shows that 50 percent are still using the devices, compared to other research that shows that only 25 percent will continue to use trackers and reach their goals, she said.
Benefits for Fitness Professionals and Clients
The data from this study may not be a surprise to people in the fitness industry. Many trainers, wellness coaches and club owners know that it's to their advantage to learn how to use the data from wearables and help their clients understand this data so they can reach their goals.
At Alloy Fitness in Norwell, Massachusetts, owner Tina Morin, who is a certified trainer, uses heart monitors on her clients during small group and private training sessions. Doing so allows her to recognize when a client is in the proper zone for rest and when it is time to restart during interval or high-intensity training.
"Heart rate training for HIIT (high intensity interval training) is proven to be super effective, and it makes a session more interesting," she said. She added that keeping individuals within certain zones results in maximum fat burning or weight loss.
The sleep tracker element of wearables is invaluable because getting the proper amount of sleep is vital for optimizing one's output, said Chris Clough at FitWerx in McLean, Virginia.
"I found a number of clients who weren't getting enough sleep in their daily routine," said Clough, who has been a trainer for 12 years. "Once we had the conversation about that, it became a part to focus on and a priority in their life."
The conversations that the wearable data allows Clough to have with clients not only helps them refocus on priorities, but it also allows him to refine their workouts, Clough said.
"We only see clients one, two or maybe three hours a week if we're lucky," he said. "The rest of the hours of the week it is impossible to know what is going on with them. Fitness trackers help along those lines."
The data can be empowering for the clients, too, said Jessica Matthews, senior advisor for health and fitness education for the American Council on Exercise and kinesiology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California.
"The ability to gather and evaluate objective data regarding one's health and well-being, from quality and duration of sleep, to quantity and intensity of physical activity, empowers individuals not only to establish goals which are specific, measurable and attainable, but it also serves as a powerful and effective approach for clients to self-monitor their own behaviors, which is an important element in facilitating lasting behavior change," she said.
Activity trackers offer benefits for gym owners, too, mainly in the form of improved member retention. When owners and their staff are educated in as many wearables as possible—or at least the most popular ones in their club—they are better able to communicate information about the data with members, increasing their personal or online interactions with them. Studies have shown the more club employees engage with their members the more likely the members will remain at the club.
"By using apps and wearables, these clubs can create that online community … the apps and wearables allow for the constant feedback and praise," said Ted Vickey, president of FitWell, a strategic consulting company focused on the effective use of technology within the health and fitness industry. "Apps and wearables help people feel they are more successful with setting fitness and health goals and in tracking progress."
This interaction also may lead to members signing up for more classes, group training or personal training, which can lead to increased non-dues revenue for club owners.
And if all of this interaction and data discussion also leads to members' attaining their goals, then it can translate into members not only staying with the club but also referring friends.
What Does the Future Hold?
Wearables are only the beginning, according to Bryan O'Rourke, president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council. Not too far in the future the use of artificial intelligence—machines learning one's training habits and having the ability to suggest and nudge individuals who are not hitting goals—will be upon us, perhaps in the form of something similar to Amazon Echo or Google Home, he said.
This technology, which is already embedded in some platforms, will not replace a workout with a fitness professional but will add to it by having the ability to send reminders (perhaps just to hydrate or rest), offer support and follow a customized program, he said.
Club operators also will be able to use the technology to recognize when a member arrives or leaves, as well as to notify a professional for assistance or to offer accolades.
"Cognition can happen by machines learning our activity," O'Rourke said. "Based on preferences, [artificial intelligence] can intervene during the day. … by sending you a text or telling you to eat more oatmeal or run 10 minutes to reach goals.
"It can really deliver some unbelievable services that were impossible before."
8 Ways Trainers Can Help Members Use Trackers to Reach Their Goals
Club Industry asked four fitness professionals how members can use trackers to reach their goals. The eight tips shared below were offered by these four individuals: Greg Johnson, owner and personal trainer at Varimax, Sacramento, California; Tina Morin, owner and personal trainer at Alloy Fitness, Norwell, Massachusetts; Chris Clough, personal trainer at FitWerx Studio, McLean, Virginia; and Lee Jordan, ACE-certified health coach and behavior change specialist.
Help clients not only understand the tracker data but also how to use it to their advantage during workouts. - Johnson
Make clients accountable by seeing what they are doing outside of their sessions. - Johnson
Pick the best tracker or wearable for their specific workout goals. - Johnson
Monitor work-to-rest ratios during workouts to see in real time when a client has fully recovered and how heart rates affect different people. - Johnson
Use data to open conversations between trainers and clients. It can deepen the relationship and pinpoint where work needs to be done. - Clough
Use the advantages of a tracker as a seminar subject for club members. – Clough
Track the client's sleep to maximize a workout. Lack of sleep causes abnormal behavior and the inability to optimize a workout. – Morin
Use the data to steer the client toward self-awareness for behavior change. - Jordan