Look at the wrists of people as you walk along the street, and chances are you'll see one or two fitness trackers in the mix. They sell well, but are they actually successful in delivering behavioural change? The evidence is decidedly mixed, and even if the person whose wrist you're ogling looks in great shape, that's half the problem: the kind of person who buys a fitness tracker is already motivated, and that bare wrist on the man next to them may once have had a band, before he lost interest.
If there was an overriding theme running throughout ActiveLab Live – a one-day event where fitness-industry professionals came to discuss how technology can make people fitter – that was it. Why is this enormous install base having a limited impact on the actual health of the world? Among the delegates were also 12 health startups vying for seed funding – a high-stakes 60-second pitch would prove life-changing for one company.
But before they got to pitch, they would first hear plenty of discussion about the current problems with health trackers. “Just providing someone with information on what they did yesterday and today isn't necessarily enough to empower most people to change their behaviour,” argued Charlotte Bearn, head of startup ventures at the Behavioural Insights Team. To that end, when looking to make a change, they recommend making sure interventions and actions are easy, attractive, social and/or timely. Ideally all four.
Lara Clements, audience and evaluation lead at the Wellcome Trust, agreed with this analysis. “We know self-monitoring works, we know reward feedback loops work, but something that often gets neglected is remembering the wider context in which people work,” she explained. “People's motivations ebb and flow, and people's decision making isn't very rational, so instead of giving them rational facts, it's about making things meaningful and personal to them.”
It's not just that we're not rational, it's also that we're results-driven, and improved fitness doesn't happen overnight. As Jonathan Monks, EMEA director of MyZone, pointed out. “There's a gap between the action and the reward,” he said. If someone goes into a gym having not exercised in a while, it's not a good experience. “It's not necessarily giving people a good feeling. We're surprised that people's length of stay in the fitness industry and adoption of exercise is not that strong, but then you do all this exercise and you can't walk for four days afterwards! There aren't many parts of that journey that are particularly positive.” Gamification and social elements have worked for MyZone (and others), but there's still the problem of how to overcome that initial unpleasant feeling that many get from exercise and healthy living.
One interesting case study was shared by Samsung Europe's head of corporate communications, Mark Hutcheon. “There was a nice experiment done by Adidas when they were developing miCoach,” he recalled. Half the participants were asked to take a photo of themselves post-exercise and were then shown the previous day's picture before the notification came to run again. “Those that got photos of themselves endorphined up, looking great, were four times as likely to complete the programme and do it at a better, higher level. That's a very simple thing to do – you don't need artificial intelligence to remind someone that it's enjoyable.”
Did someone say artificial intelligence? Yes, although the simple change above doesn't require AI, it's the view of Hutcheon that it's this that will take fitness trackers to the next level. “We're at the first generation of wearables, and while they sell bucketloads, I don't think they're that effective,” he explains. “I think the really interesting second phase is AI-based cognitive machines that will coach you. Whatever the wearable give them in terms of data – how you're feeling, energy levels or performances – it will coach you, motivate you and encourage you. That's where I think all the gaps will start to get filled in.”
Of course, the future of fitness doesn't have to be wearable – in fact, in some ways thinking inside that particular box limits how wide the blue sky is, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors. With that in mind, there were 12 companies looking to pitch for an impressive funding package from the event's sponsors, including 30 hours' free PR from Playbook, and five days of sales lead generation from JMB Partnership. I can't imagine the pressure on the speakers who had to somehow get their whole business across in a 60-second pitch followed by just a 90-second Q&A.
I spoke to a number of them beforehand, fortunately, and was pretty impressed with the clever thinking at work. There were several promising-sounding companies on display. Take ShapeLog, for instance – a bit like Chromecast for gym equipment. In other words, it makes old, dumb gym equipment smart, and they claim it can track individual gym users with 96% certainty thanks to a cunning dose of AI. That means that without wearing anything or logging in, gym visitors can expect a tailored report delivered to their phones providing stats and info about their session before they've even left the car park. Neat.
Then there's iPrescribe Exercise: on the surface of it, a familiar-sounding iPhone app, in that it logs heart rate through the camera and provides a fitness programme. The clever part is that it uses your heart rate, weight, height, date of birth and up to 20 different medical conditions to provide a customised workout without needing a doctor to intervene: it's all done via the data. Smart enough for a recent appearance in Harvard Health.
While some – such as a Swiss-ball style controller for VR headsets – were high-tech, others were admirable in their simplicity: a site for connecting pensioners to take on sports and tackle loneliness, and StepJockey – plaques that can be installed at the bottom of office staircases showing the estimated calorie burn, and allowing employees to scan their phones as they pass them for inter-company competitions and prizes.
The eventual winner took a different approach: instilling good habits when young. Imoves works with more than 500 schools and provides active lesson plans beyond PE, with dance elements. With the extra support, maybe the company's desire to be part of every school will help make this the next generation of fitness tracker-enthusiasts – the type who'll always use them, rather than leave them in a drawer, uncharged.