Fitness tech should be at the ‘health intervention’ table

More than 20 million people in the UK are physically inactive, a fact which is costing us – or more specifically the NHS – around £20billion every year. In 2014/15 alone the NHS spent £5.1 billion purely on treating overweight and obesity-related ill health. Something has got to change.

Helping people to become more active and, dare I say it, take responsibility for their own health, has to be a national priority. It’s a big task. But one which would seem infinitely less daunting if we stopped overlooking solutions sitting right in front of us. A case in point – fitness trackers.

Over 53 million fitness trackers were sold in 2016. Given that the whole point of fitness trackers is to encourage wearers to 1) be more active and 2) set their own benchmarks to monitor improvements, surely this particular technology deserves a spot at the ‘health intervention’ table?

Not if you believe the naysayers. And many of us do. We’re all quick to believe headlines about how quickly people ditch their new-found love of fitness tech in favour of old habits; how trackers don’t record data with pin-point accuracy so why bother.

I can tell anyone that will listen why they should bother. Because fitness trackers work. And, perhaps more importantly, they work for those who probably need them most. The key is how they are used.

Last year Life Leisure took part in a Sport England funded national programme run by Sporta called Make Your Move. The aim of the programme is for trusts like ours to increase participation in physical activity for at least 40,000 people – specifically those who may normally struggle to access and enjoy sport.

Our ‘actilife’ project essentially had two key components. The first was equipping participants with a fitness tracker which logged basic data, such as steps taken, distance covered, activity level/duration and calorie burn etc., on a dedicated web portal. The second was having coaches offer remote wellness advice and support based on each individuals’ data and progress.

Over 400 individuals took part in the project, 61% of whom were categorised as completely inactive (do less than 30 mins of activity a week) and therefore statistically more at risk of developing health conditions later in life.

After three months, 85% of those taking part reported an increase in their activity levels – 66% said that they were achieving at least 3 x 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. In fact, the results have continued to be so strong that two more leisure trusts in the North West (which by the way is one of the UK’s top regions for physical inactivity levels) have now adopted the programme to help increase activity levels in their local communities.

So why have the results been so positive? In my view the key is context – something those who dismiss tracker technology often fail to consider.

For example, it is important to remember those taking part in the project weren’t fitness fanatics looking to improve their running speed, train for an event or fit into an outfit – far from it. They were, in effect, people approaching physical activity from an absolute standing start i.e. precisely the people who will get the most benefit out of more regular exercise.

Also it is important to highlight that participants weren’t ‘going it alone’. A hugely significant part of the programme is the remote support and advice offered by physical activity experts, essentially one-on-one coaching – advice you’d normally only get by physically attending a gym.

Most reports of ‘fitness tracker failures’ focus on the technology in isolation – as a mechanism designed to improve health entirely by itself. Of course that’s not going to work.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable tool when implemented as part of a broader mix of measures.

Recent research from Indiana University, published by the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Journal, supports this view by revealing that trackers are more likely to motivate people to become physically activity if their use is coupled with wellness coaching. Brian Keissling, one of the study’s co-authors, reported that the device/coaching coupling enabled and equipped people to “view movement outside the traditional idea of exercise involving a gym.”

Fitness trackers aren’t for everyone. They aren’t a silver bullet that can solve our NHS crisis. But, if used with the right support, they are a highly accessible route to help prevent health issues developing, improve activity levels for those most at risk, and ultimately promote community wellbeing.

This is a guest article written by Malcolm McPhail, CEO of Life Leisure

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