Fitness Wearables and Families: Limited Conversations May Lead To Limited Benefits

Herman Saksono
Apr 24 · 4 min read

This article summarises a paper authored by Herman Saksono, Carmen Castaneda-Sceppa, Jessica Hoffman, Magy Seif El-Nasr, Vivien Morris, and Andrea G. Parker. This paper will be presented at CHI 2019, a conference of Human-Computer Interaction, on Tuesday 7th May 2019 at 16:00 in the session Sport and Fitness.


Fitness tracking wearables, such as Fitbit and the Apple Watch, have been touted as valuable platforms for helping people to exercise more. However, research shows that within 2 months people often stop using their trackers or even abandon them altogether. This waning user engagement suggests that current fitness trackers may not have a long-term positive impact on users’ wellness. Our 2-month study of family physical activity tracking further explains why waning engagement limits the impact of fitness trackers: participants in our study rarely thought about their digital fitness data in a way that could help them to be active in the long-term.

In our study, we invited 14 families with young children to wear Fitbits and UNICEF Kid Power bands. We also asked them to use the accompanying mobile apps. All families lived in low-income neighborhoods, where there are increased barriers to being physically active. We are focused on families because family support has been shown to be strongly linked to physical activity. We then conducted three in-depth interviews with participants to understand their experiences with the wearables and the companion mobile apps.

We found that very few families in our study discussed how their exercise behavior (as captured and visualized by their fitness trackers) can make them healthier. Most families only discussed the step counts on their trackers or discussed how they got these step counts. They rarely engaged in deeper reflection on how their fitness behaviors affect their health. Some families did not discuss their fitness data at all.

Very few families discussed how their steps count in their trackers can make them healthier (Causal Insight, bottom row). This framework integrated Kolb’s experiential learning stages (1984), Fleck’s reflection levels (2012), and Choe et al.’s insight types (2017).

Discussing the meaning of physical activity data is an important step towards identifying fitness support structures, which are crucial for helping people engage in regular physical activity. What are these support structures? They refer to the mechanisms of support that make healthy behaviors more attainable. Decades of health research has shown that these sources of support operate at the personal, interpersonal, and community levels (Trost et al., 2002; Van Der Horst et al., 2012). This research shows that individuals who are active often have activities that they find enjoyable, interact with people who are supportive of their fitness behavior, and feel safe exercising in their neighborhood. Therefore, in-depth discussions of fitness data can help individuals learn that their fitness levels can go up if they identify their own support structures.

Our data helps to explain why some families discussed their fitness data in more depth with their children. We found that in-depth fitness data conversations often arose among families who had experienced prior health-related challenges. Specifically, for caregivers with prior bodyweight struggles, their children’s health appeared to be a particular priority, and this health value in turn seemed to spur in-depth fitness data conversations about the benefits of physical activity.

We also found that parents who were not engaged with their fitness data were often more focused on their children’s education. Of course, it is not surprising that parents prioritized their children’s education. However, for families in our study, this value was particularly important because they believed that having a college education will enable their children to live in a safer neighborhood when they grow up.

In summary, parents’ broader life goals for their children — safety, education, and helping them learn the value of physical activity — seemed to impact families’ level of engagement with fitness data. The benefits of fitness trackers were more relatable for parents who were focused on helping their children learn why being active is important. For parents who were more focused on their children’s education, the benefits of fitness trackers were less immediately clear. Although research has shown that physical activity has positive effects on children’s learning, our study suggests that these benefits are not being clearly communicated by fitness tracking wearables.

Our study highlights that parents may have broader goals that they wish to pursue, beyond low-level behavioral change such as improving physical activity, diet, sleep, etc. For example, helping their children to get an education that affords them a safe life. We encourage the design of health technologies that more clearly communicate how fitness logging and reflection can support the attainment of such life goals (e.g., by emphasizing the connection between physical activity and learning). Such a design agenda may be a valuable way of nurturing user engagement, and accompanying the benefits that fitness technologies can provide.


For more details, read the paper published at CHI 2019:

Herman Saksono, Carmen Castaneda-Sceppa, Jessica Hoffman, Magy Seif El-Nasr, Vivien Morris, and Andrea G. Parker. 2019. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings (CHI 2019), May 4–9, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland UK. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 14 pages.

ACM CHI

CHI 2019 — Weaving the threads of CHI

Herman Saksono

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My research is in the fields of Human-Computer Interactions (HCI) and Personal Health Informatics. Website: http://www.ccs.neu.edu/~hsaksono

ACM CHI

ACM CHI

CHI 2019 — Weaving the threads of CHI

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