There’s little evidence that wearable fitness tracking device technology alone can change behavior and improve health for those that need it most, according to a new online-first viewpoint piece by University of Pennsylvania researchers in JAMA.

“The notion is that by recording and reporting information about behaviors such as physical activity or sleep patterns, these devices can educate and motivate individuals toward better habits and better health,” write authors Mitesh S. Patel, M.D., David A. Asch, M.D., and Kevin G. Volpp, M.D., all of whom are faculty at Penn and attending physicians at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. “The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial, however, and while these devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging the gap.”

Instead, the authors suggest that applying behavioral economics concepts – such as lotteries or telling individuals what they would have won had they achieved a goal – could help achieve behavioral change. Building new habits, they said, may be best facilitated by presenting frequent feedback, or by using a trigger that captures the individual’s attention at those moments when he or she is most likely to take action.

The authors believe four challenges need to be addressed for wearable devices to effectively promote health behavior change. First, a person must be motivated enough to want a device and be able to afford it. Second, once a device is acquired, a person must remember to wear it and occasionally recharge it. Third, the device must be able to accurately track its targeted behavior. And fourth, the information must be presented back to the user (using a feedback loop) in a way that can be understood, that motivates action, and that sustains the motivation towards improved health.

“Although wearable devices have the potential to facilitate health behavior change, this change may not be driven by these devices alone,” write the authors. “Ultimately, it’s the engagement strategies – the combinations of individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops – that connect with human behavior.”

The paper is available here.

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