“I measured my thing, it grew 1cm” – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, and the series that followed were required reading for anyone, like me, who grew up in the 80s or early 90s. Adrian devotes much of his first two diaries to worrying about the state of his skin and an obsession about measuring the length of his manhood. And very little has changed for me. Like most runners I am fixated on measuring everything – speed, heart rate, distance, averages, etc. When it comes to “time” there is no other group that’s as fanatical about measurement as runners are. GPS watches are a relatively recent addition to running. The first watches were introduced in the early 2000s. They didn’t offer users the option to upload data for storage or analysis. Since then, GPS reception and battery life has improved significantly, and advances in the technology have allowed devices to get much smaller, making them more practical for everyday wear. So technology is now wearable. They allow sleep quality, the number steps taken and calories burned to be measured. It is capable of tracking heart rate, daily activity levels and exercise; and can even be used as a GPS running watch. It makes these measurements available at a glance and some claim that wearing one means “it’s easier to be healthy and achieve more”. But do these watches really change behaviour, increase activity levels and reduce the risk of health problems…… Yes they do (Lyons et al., 2014) ….. But How? Observing behaviour changes behaviour – known as the “Hawthorne Effect”. Fitness band wearers increase their activity levels due to the fact it’s being measured (McCambridge, Witton and Elbourne, 2014). It has been suggested that social support and comparison (social media boasting) facilitated by the fitness bands may be one of the behavioural change techniques responsible (Lyons et al., 2014). But let’s be honest, it’s like wearing your conscience on your wrist. It brings the guilt of “not being active” into the now, rather than postponing it, and turning it into a promise. Reaching for the remote, the watch sneaks out from under the sleeve and asks – could you do more? Have you hit your recommended step count for today? Have you earned the calories to eat the fruit and nut? So the obsession with technology often blamed for making us lazy, unhealthy and obese may have the potential to cure us, but only if we can tolerate having our conscience on our wrist.
But what happened when my eight year old asked Santa Clause for a fit bit? Intuitively, it felt unnecessary and wrong. Yes I love using technology to dissect and analyse my runs, sleeps and steps, but my initial reaction to Molly popping an activity tracker on her wrist was – Hell no! Molly doesn’t need to understand heart rates, distances or steps. She doesn’t need a watch to tell her to move, she wants to move on her own. Don’t most kids? ……… Well no they don’t, not any more. In the Ireland of 1975, one in every hundred children was obese. In Ireland of 2019 one in five 5 year olds are overweight or obese. And even though the causes are multifactorial, one of the main reasons is that 4 out of 5 kids are not meeting their required physical activity levels. The National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland suggest all children (2-18 years) should be active at a moderate to vigorous level for at least 60 minutes every day. People may assume children are naturally energetic and require little encouragement but the majority aren’t. Is outsourcing this responsibility to Fitbit the answer? Isn’t the dream to let our kids enjoy all the things we did, when play was unstructured impulsive and dangerous. Shouldn’t we cut off technology and go on family walks and bike rides, trips to the park, games of football , tip the can, and hide-and-go-seek? Why must we pay for a lifeless object to parent our children? In fact British research proves that the activity levels of parents may have a direct influence on how active – or not – their children are (Hesketh et al., 2014). The most valuable present for children this Christmas will not be wrapped and it won’t even need batteries. Children are hardwired to learn by imitation (Jones (Jones, 2009). Family can be the seedbed for a physically active life (Eyler et al., 1999) (Ferreira et al., 2007). The long term feasibility and effectiveness of physical activity trackers in increasing children’s activity is still unclear but the initial studies are encouraging (Ridgers, McNarry and Mackintosh, 2016).Yes it may not be the unpasteurised free play of previous “Adrian Mole” generations, but to continue to expect kids to exercise in the same way may be unrealistic and if technology is the route to get the next generation moving then it should be embraced.
Eyler, A. A., Brownson, R. C., Donatelle, R. J., King, A. C., Brown, D. and Sallis, J. F. (1999) ‘Physical activity social support and middle- and older-aged minority women: results from a US survey’, Soc Sci Med, 49(6), pp. 781-9.
Ferreira, I., van der Horst, K., Wendel-Vos, W., Kremers, S., van Lenthe, F. J. and Brug, J. (2007) ‘Environmental correlates of physical activity in youth – a review and update’, Obes Rev, 8(2), pp. 129-54.
Hesketh, K. R., Goodfellow, L., Ekelund, U., McMinn, A. M., Godfrey, K. M., Inskip, H. M., Cooper, C., Harvey, N. C. and van Sluijs, E. M. F. (2014) ‘Activity Levels in Mothers and Their Preschool Children’, Pediatrics, 133(4), pp. e973.
Jones, S. S. (2009) ‘The development of imitation in infancy’, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 364(1528), pp. 2325-35.
Lyons, E. J., Lewis, Z. H., Mayrsohn, B. G. and Rowland, J. L. (2014) ‘Behavior change techniques implemented in electronic lifestyle activity monitors: a systematic content analysis’, J Med Internet Res, 16(8), pp. e192.
McCambridge, J., Witton, J. and Elbourne, D. R. (2014) ‘Systematic review of the Hawthorne effect: new concepts are needed to study research participation effects’, J Clin Epidemiol, 67(3), pp. 267-77.
Ridgers, N. D., McNarry, M. A. and Mackintosh, K. A. (2016) ‘Feasibility and Effectiveness of Using Wearable Activity Trackers in Youth: A Systematic Review’, JMIR Mhealth Uhealth, 4(4), pp. e129.