A few weeks ago now, I put my trusty Fitbit in a drawer, prepared to embrace a life of untracked stepping, reveled in my newfound freedom for about half a second, and then immediately regretted the whole thing and wrote a story about how angsty it made me not knowing exactly how far I’d walked. It was rough. It’s still rough. I expect it will be rough for a while.
Which is why the news of new research on Fitbit quitters hit close to home. In a study set to be presented next week at a conference hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery, a team of computer scientists found that fitness trackers can still motivate people to stay physically active, even after they’ve taken them off — the key is showing them their old data in new ways.
In previous research published earlier this year, the same team asked 193 former users of tracking devices — including fitness trackers, finance trackers, and location trackers — about the experience of quitting. Emotions were all over the place: Some people felt freer, others were plagued with guilt (especially, it bears noting, among people who’d given up fitness trackers).
For this newest study, the researchers surveyed 141 former Fitbit users about how the data they’d amassed in their step-tracking days could still be useful to them in a Fitbit-less future. Those who had worn their Fitbits for only a few months said they’d be most interested in charts showing them the hours each day when they were most physically active. Users with a longer history wanted displays that highlighted that continuity. And pretty much everyone said that flattering comparisons — like “You walked more than 70 percent of people” — would encourage them to keep up their healthy habits past the point when they stopped tracking them. Those who said they felt guilty about giving up the practice were most open to the idea of picking it up again, but, the study authors wrote, that wasn’t necessarily the goal: “A positive outcome in this case may or may not be a resumption of tracking. For example, a person may instead benefit from a reminder of the insights they gained from tracking.”
“Right now self-tracking apps tend to assume everyone will track forever, and that’s clearly not the case,” study co-author James Fogarty, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, said in a statement. But “there may be better ways to help them get better value out of the data after they’re done, or reconnect them to the app for weeklong check-ins or periodic tune-ups that don’t presume they’ll be doing this every day for the rest of their lives.” I may not be tracking anymore, but the benefits of the habit can stay with me — for someone who’s still adjusting to the unquantified life, it’s a comforting thought.