Study: Social engagement, digital coaches keep fitness wearable users motivated

By Dave Muoio
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New research shows users of fitness tracker wearables are more active when their fitness apps include frequent social network activity, and will take an average of 20 percent to 25 percent more steps after receiving prompts from a digital coach. According to a recent study — which was designed and conducted in joint by VSP Global, maker the Level wearable used in the investigation, and the University of Southern California’s Center for Body Computing — users who are older, report higher life satisfaction, and have positive perceptions of the fitness tracking device are also more likely to log increased physical activity.

"Everyone is predicting the decline of wearables for health because of the issues with Fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand market performance but we see it differently — the key is to create a device that offers more than just fitness tracking; it has to become your digital life worn without thought," Dr. Leslie Saxon, study lead and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, told MobiHealthNews. "That is why smart, innovative companies like VSP Global and Apple are taking everyday wearables — eyeglasses and watches respectively — and turning them into mobile, personal digital health centers.”

To measure indicators of fitness tracker wearable use, Saxon and colleagues outfitted 284 study participants with a prototype of VSP’s Level smart glasses, which include embedded biometric sensors and a connected smartphone app to track users activity levels. Included in the app were activity trackers, motivational prompts, and a social network enabling them to view and comment on others’ activities. The researchers instructed all participants instructed participants to wear the prescription glasses daily for 15 weeks, and complete surveys before and after the study on personality type and their experience with the platform, respectively.

Eighty percent of the 275 participants who completed enrollment used the platform for the duration of the study. The researchers recorded a daily mean step total of 1,956 steps, although this value declined over the course of the study. This finding was disappointing to the researchers, who had hypothesized that the use of a tracker which did not require an additional wearable might offset the gradual decline of activity reported in other studies.

Outside of this trend, analysis revealed that certain baseline characteristics such as older age and greater life satisfaction predicted higher levels of activity, while post-study surveys suggested that charitable giving and social relationships could serve as motivators. Further, motivational prompts from social network members and from the tracker app both spurred users to take more steps.

The researchers also noted that participants generally responded well to having their tracker embedded in prescriptive eyewear as opposed to a separate wearable, and that there was a significant correlation between activity and positive perceptions of the wearable and fitness app. Jay Sales, co-director of The Shop, VSP Global’s innovation lab, told MobiHealthNews that the participants’ warm receptions to VSP’s platform was encouraging, and offers support to future efforts in eyewear fitness tracking.

“Glasses are already solving a problem and have been for over 700 years,” Sales said. “Augmenting that with a seamless integration of technology and a frictionless, engaging app experience is why 'smart eyewear' stands poised to be a leading player in the continued evolution of wearables.”

Despite their growing proliferance, attrition has long been the bane of fitness wearables. A 2016 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that fitness bands and smartwatches suffer an 18 percent and 22 percent rate of attrition, respectively, while smart glasses fell at 16 percent.