ACTIVITY TRACKING + MOTIVATION SCIENCE: Allies to Keep People Moving for a Lifetime : ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal

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Allies to Keep People Moving for a Lifetime

Segar, Michelle L. Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S.

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal 21(4):p 8-17, July/August 2017. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000309
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“Over one-in-five U.S. adults use some form of personal health tracking device…and an estimated 485 million wearable computing devices will be in the market by 2018.” (Reported in “The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification,” Etkin, 2016, p. 1.)

Health economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn recently noted research showing that wearable activity trackers and smart watches are among the fastest-growing segment in consumer electronic purchases (36). It seems as if there is a fitness tracker on every wrist, and people are more than happy to share their statistics about steps and reps and minutes spent moving. Because of their tremendous commercial success and burgeoning role in promoting physical activity within the fitness, wellness, and health care arenas, it is important to critically consider both the limitations and promises of activity trackers and wearables in cultivating sustainable motivation to move. This article will discuss some concerns regarding activity tracking alone to motivate behavior, describe science related to enhancing physical activity motivation more generally, and then show how this science can become an ally to tracking apps and wearables to boost their motivational potency, engagement, and the sustainability of physical activity.

Activity trackers are novel and accessible; it’s easy to grab one and go. And it’s just as easy to get engaged with feedback from your Fitbit, your Apple Watch®, or your tracking app — they are shiny new tools, great gifts, and fun. And it’s not just wearables; smartphone-based tracking apps for movement, fitness, and health also have made inroads into the territory formerly occupied by home exercise machines and fitness equipment. Tracking apps also have reopened the door to movement for those who have felt alienated or turned off by high-intensity fitness classes or feel that they have failed at traditional exercise.


Many app users are thrilled to see digital proof of how many more steps they are taking each day and intrigued by observing data on their sleep patterns and daily heart rate. This is not surprising — positive feedback is considered to be an essential element in driving ongoing goal pursuit (11). In other words, for people to stay motivated to pursue any goal, they need to get continual feedback that they successfully are achieving it. It is undoubtedly energizing and motivating for previously inactive individuals to see that that they took hundreds of more steps today than yesterday and to discover that when they get up from their desk and move around more during the workday, it adds to their step count and thus toward their ultimate goal.

From corporate wellness solutions to mobile technologies for patient-centered care, activity trackers are seemingly everywhere. It is no surprise that fitness professionals are interested in using tracking apps and wearable devices, too: a 2014 study on the impact of wearables on the fitness industry conducted by ACE and Inov8 Health found that most health and fitness professionals say that their clients are interested in wearable activity devices and that they want to learn how to better leverage this technology in their work (3). As a fitness professional, your clients undoubtedly are asking about them or already wearing them, and you may well wear one yourself. So they must work in changing behavior, right?

The answer turns out to be a little more complicated.


Activity trackers and wearables are certainly fun to use. They encourage users to “count” all physical movement and provide valuable feedback that keeps some people moving. Because of their popularity, stand-alone tracking apps and wearables, as well as tracking integrated with other behavioral interventions (health coaching, Web-based competitions, etc.), are being researched at high rates. Yet this burgeoning area of research varies a great deal (e.g., study design, populations, type of tracking, placement of tracking device, duration of study, number of components in app, and targeted outcomes) leaving many unanswered questions. For example, some intervention studies among healthy participants have found that wearables help people lose weight (47). Other interventions among chronically ill populations have reported that the use of pedometer plus Web site can increase daily walking (33). Still, other research has found that only some types of trackers influence outcomes. For example, a study of inactive postmenopausal women found that although a standard pedometer did not motivate increased physical activity in the group wearing them, a comparison group wearing a Fitbit did increase their physical activity (8).

But for many, as one recent study has found, tracking-related motivation may not be sustainable over the long term. By the end of a yearlong study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, Fitbit participants increased their physical activity by 16 minutes per week. However, by 6 months, 40% of the participants had stopped wearing their trackers, and by 1 year, only 10% of the participants were still wearing them. Study authors noted that none of the targeted health-related outcomes changed from this increased participation (16). Another recently published investigation found that tracking plus participating in a competition increased steps, whereas tracking alone did not (35). Furthermore, a survey of wearable users found that over half had discontinued using them, and of those participants, one third had stop using them within 6 months (30).

Tracking activity also can have some unanticipated negative outcomes. A University of Pittsburg study of 571 participants looked at the efficacy of tracking with lifestyle intervention targeting weight loss (26). Surprisingly, researchers found that tracking plus the intervention actually resulted in less weight loss than participating in the intervention alone. According to study author John Jakicic, “These activity trackers really don’t engage people in strategies that really make a difference in terms of long-term lifestyle change” (25).

Despite the mix of positive and negative research findings, and mounting concern that wearable technology doesn’t sufficiently motivate (9,19), tracking apps and wearable technologies hold promise for increasing physical activity when they are designed using scientifically supported principles in motivation and consumer behavior.

Yet, whether the activity tracker is in a smartphone or worn on the hip, bra, or wrist, it is vitally important for fitness professionals and users alike to understand that these are only tools. Their value is as an aid toward reaching a goal, such as being more physically active, but they are still just tools — not the holy grail of motivation. To date, research suggests that activity trackers by themselves are not going to help most people achieve long-term motivation and sustainable behavior change.

It is vitally important for fitness professionals and users alike to understand that activity trackers and wearables are tools; they are not the holy grail of motivation. Some research suggests that activity trackers alone are not going to help people achieve long-term motivation and sustainable behavior change. Tracking devices and wearables provide a visible incentive for physical activity. For sustained use, they need a synergistic partner: the self-generating fuel of internalized motivation.


To understand this contention, let’s take a step back and consider tracking apps as part of the continuum of physical activity tools and options we’ve seen over the past several decades: think Jane Fonda workout videos, Cooper’s Aerobics, Jim Fixx and running, the Nordic Track, Suzanne Somers’s ThighMaster, and today’s very popular P90X, Insanity, and Orange Theory. Like new gym memberships that eventually go unused, many novel fitness products and services become wildly popular — for a while. And “for a while” is an ideal outcome for the companies that profit from consumers purchasing their solutions. But for consumers, “for a while” reflects the unfortunate short-term outcome that typically has resulted from most physical activity tools.

Here’s how this cycle often works: John sees a commercial about a new fitness product right after his annual physical, where he learns he is prediabetic and needs to take action to reverse this trend now. In this moment, John is acutely worried about his health and future. Prompted by his clinician and his partner, he is understandably very motivated to try something that promises to turn this situation around quickly. He’s in a “motivation bubble,” where all he can see is what he needs to achieve.

With these concerns at the forefront of his mind, John considers which physical activity tool will enable him to address this situation and decides to order a treadmill to put in his basement. He figures that having this exercise machine in his home will cut out the 20 plus minutes of commuting to and from the gym. He starts out with the best of intentions and great enthusiasm, planning to get up 30 minutes early every morning to fit in a treadmill session before work. The first week his plan goes well. The second week is a more demanding work week, with an unexpected out-of-town meeting that causes him to miss 2 days on the treadmill. He gets behind on his work because of this trip and stays up late when he returns to catch up. For the next few days he’s tired and only makes one morning session. By week 4, he reflects on the last couple of weeks of hit-and-miss workouts and feels like a failure. Now every time he walks past the treadmill it just makes him feel bad about himself. In another month it’s become a great place to toss dirty clothes on the way to the laundry room.

Once the initial novelty and intention fades from using a tool, and the very real competition of life circumstances bursts the bubble, motivation leaks out until there is no more.

This story about treadmills exemplifies the vicious cycle of failure that so frequently occurs when people become active based on the belief that the specific tool they just chose will be their ultimate solution for sustaining a physically active life. Whether the shiny new tool is a video, a class, a gym membership, a celebrity instructor, a machine, or a wearable technology, this story has an all too common trajectory: the renewed promise of finally getting hoped-for results motivates physical activity — for a while. But the excitement and primacy of the tool, and even the goal itself, quickly take a backseat to the immediate need to care for a sick child or get a report finished on time. When this happens, an activity tracker (like any tool) easily can become a source of guilt and get tossed into a drawer to avoid this reminder of yet another failure.

To understand the limitations of tracking alone as a motivational tool, as well as ways to boost its motivational potential, it is important to understand how motivation actually works and how you can better use activity tracking apps to harness it.


Motivation energizes us to pursue our goals and values. Because it fuels our behavior, it plays an essential role in people’s long-term exercise behavior, health, and well-being. Most people consider motivation to be the necessary beginning of sustained exercise and physical activity. But research shows that motivation results from people’s primary reason or goal for starting to exercise (24,38,44).

Diverse research across behaviors (including physical activity, education, and consumer behavior) suggests that goals both energize and direct behavior (6,10,17) and create the frame through which a behavior is perceived and viewed (28). Furthermore, people’s primary goal or motive for becoming more active determines whether they will experience low- or high-quality motivation for doing it (24) and influences whether they stay motivated over time.

Tracking steps and collecting other activity statistics undeniably can be motivating — at first. But trackers, and quantifying behavior more generally, in fact have been shown to reduce the pleasure people get from physical activity. According to a recent research study (15):

“Six experiments demonstrate that while measurement increases how much of an activity people do (e.g., walk or read more), it can simultaneously reduce how much people enjoy those activities. This occurs because measurement can undermine intrinsic motivation. By drawing attention to output, measurement can make enjoyable activities feel more like work, which reduces their enjoyment. As a result, measurement can decrease continued engagement in the activity and subjective well-being.”

Ironic, isn’t it? The tracker is a tool that is designed and sold to be motivating, yet it actually has the potential to decrease intrinsic motivation — a specific type of self-determined motivation that research suggests is one of the very best drivers of sustainable physical activity (49).

Research shows differences in behavior change trajectories depending on whether people initiate a new behavior (e.g., physical activity) with controlled or autonomous motivation (13). Controlled motivation is when individuals feel controlled or pressured by the idea of being active. It reflects when people consider physical activity as a “should,” something they think they ought to do (e.g., because of cultural pressures to be thin or look more attractive, or follow a clinician’s orders to lose weight) and because of that is considered to be “low-quality” motivation. In contrast, when people have high-quality motivation, they feel autonomous over their physical activity and self-determined in their actions; they deeply value the benefits they get from being physically active and/or the inherent pleasure it brings. Autonomous, self-determined forms of motivation for physical activity are more likely to drive sustainable behavior compared with controlled forms of motivation (49).

For sustained motivation, it is necessary to go beyond Siri to the real source: the self. Consider that tracking devices and apps provide an external, visible incentive for physical activity. For sustained use, they need a synergistic partner: the self-generating fuel of internalized, autonomous motivation.


Tracking apps and wearables often are designed and purchased by consumers under the assumption that seeing feedback on steps/activity inherently is motivating for most. Why, then, do only a small percentage use them past 1 year?

This gap between starting and sustaining is due to the lack of attention to the true motivator of physical activity: the primary goal it aims to achieve (28,32).

Tracking apps and wearables often are marketed as the ultimate motivator, yet most are just feedback generators. Feedback is crucial to ongoing goal pursuit (11), yet using a tracking app to get feedback on only activity per se does not address the core motivator: why an individual wants to become more physically active or use a device in the first place.

The individual’s underlying reason for increasing his/her physical activity — his/her “why” for including more movement in his/her life — is the foundation of the entire motivational and behavioral process (11). The “why” motivates behavior or it doesn’t.

The individual’s underlying reason for becoming more physically active — his/her “why” for including more movement in his/her life — is the foundation of the entire motivational and behavioral process. The “why” motivates behavior or it doesn’t. Ultimately, it influences whether people will stay motivated to stick with it long term. Without strong internal motivation to exercise, tracking apps are unlikely to pick up the motivational slack.

Ultimately, people’s underlying “whys” for physical activity directly influence whether people stay motivated to stick with it long term. Unless trackers ally with a strong internal motivation for being physically active, they often are not strong enough to pick up the motivational slack.


When asked about their motivation for becoming more physically active, most people say they are doing it to lose weight, look better, and improve their health (27,43). And why not? Exercise and physical activity are vigorously promoted as a prime way to achieve weight control, prevent disease, and achieve better health overall by public health messaging, fitness professionals, clinical encounters, advertising, and the media (1,2). Unfortunately for patients, consumers, and health and wellness professionals alike, research suggests that these types of logical, future-oriented health-related whys might be nonoptimal for motivating people to sustain physically active lives (18) — these forces effectively have branded physical activity as medicine and as a body-sculpting tool (39) rather than a pleasurable experience. This easily turns being active from something people want to do to a chore they are obligated to do.

Consider how this works:

An individual initiates a more physically active lifestyle to achieve an abstract goal such as “better health.” The motivation frequently comes from an external pressure — his/her doctor’s advice, his/her partner’s remarks, peer pressure, or that fitness magazine cover. This initiates a sequential process that results in a vicious cycle of failure.

The vicious cycle of failure starts with what I call the “Wrong Why” (Figure 1) (42) — an initial reason for wanting to become more physically active driven by avoiding a disease in the future (perhaps simply following doctor’s orders) or achieving unrealistic changes in body shape or weight (e.g., wanting to “look good” for an upcoming wedding). Whatever the impetus for change, the wrong why often originates from an external source, such as wanting to meet a societal standard or please someone.

Figure 1:
Vicious Cycle of Failure.

This leads directly into the how-to-do-it or “chore” phase — vowing to work out intensely, join a club, or buy an activity tracker; whatever it takes to achieve the objective. The person feels like he/she “should” do the physical activity, regardless of how it makes them feel — until, inevitably, something gets in the way. They miss a workout or two, forget to check their numbers, or feel guilty about putting this ahead of other priorities. Eventually, they stop, feeling as if they have failed.


After some time has passed, however, they feel inspired (or pressured) to try again. But because this is the only approach to physical activity they have learned, they jump right back into the vicious cycle — optimistic that this will be the right time or the right tool. Only temporarily motivated by another wrong why, however, they unknowingly have set themselves up for failure again.

It’s not that health- and weight-related goals are inherently bad. Rather, it’s what these motivators do not do: they do not imbue physical activity with a meaning and purpose within people’s lives that give it sufficient clout on a daily basis. Thus, even a wonderful goal such as “better health” easily becomes the wrong “why” for many (45). On any given day, it is hard for physical activity that aims to achieve a vague future outcome such as “better health” (or “losing weight”) to beat out the urgent and unexpected life tasks against which they constantly compete.

Consider tracking apps and wearables within this perspective. Some people clearly are motivated by the immediate visual feedback (numbers, graphs, etc.) that they receive from activity tracking alone. Although instant gratification provided by this feedback may lead to feelings of success for some, this quantified achievement may not be enough. There is growing concern that the immediate gratification this feedback provides does not transform into something that is sufficiently relevant to people’s daily roles and goals to generate sustained motivation (9).

So what do people make time for?

People make time for what’s essential and for experiences that make them feel good. Even when people say they are motivated to pursue a behavior to achieve a goal in the future, it is the immediate rewards that actually predict persistence toward that goal (53)! Growing research shows that physical activity that is enjoyable and makes people feel good right now is more motivating than a noble but far-off goal such as improving their health (39,48), even for people older than 60 years who likely consider being healthy as highly relevant (18).

It’s clear: when we are less stressed and more energized, we enjoy life more and perform better in the key life roles that we value, such as parent, partner, and professional. When we notice the immediate benefit from moving our bodies in increased well-being, and observe how feeling better improves our performance in the everyday life roles that we care most about, we are motivated to continue to do a self-care behavior such as physical activity.

So, odd as it seems, it may be time for professionals to stop promoting future health and weight loss as motivators for movement (40). Because when we promote positive health behaviors for their very real and instantaneous payoffs that benefit daily living, individuals experience a much more compelling incentive to adopt and sustain them within their busy lives. This notion aligns with behavioral economics research showing that humans are more motivated by immediate rewards (e.g., well-being now) than ones they have to wait for (e.g., better health in the future) (22,31).

Instead of working counter to human nature, let’s harness its power to motivate autonomous motivation. Tracking apps and wearables should move from the “quantified self” (e.g., I am focused on numbers when I move) to the “feeling self” (e.g., I am focused on how I feel and function when I move).


Active lifestyle behaviors do much more than improve health: they lead almost immediately to increased energy and productivity, focus at work, patience at home, and more generally boost life satisfaction. Furthermore, evidence indicates that we unconsciously and consciously can prime people to expect and notice these real-time positive experiences and benefits from being active (4,23), and by doing so, we can create a reciprocal cycle of enjoying how we feel when we move, increasing intrinsic motivation and ultimately behavioral sustainability. Ironically, by asking people to focus on immediate pleasure and well-being from moving, instead of on future health benefits, we are setting people up to perceive all opportunities to move as a gift, something that should motivate an ongoing desire to move, and ultimately improve their health (21).

Let’s consider how this works. When people use physical activity and moving more generally as a way to boost their mood or generate energy, they get immediate positive feedback when they are active and want to do it again and again. This successful cycle of motivation springs from the “Right Why” (Figure 2) (42).

Figure 2:
Successful Cycle of Motivation.

The right why reflects enjoyment and empowerment: choosing to move for reasons that feel relevant and compelling and then participating in physical activities that deliver immediate positive feedback: listening to high-energy music while using the elliptical; walking for 10 minutes with a partner for connection; being in the present moment when swimming; sharing laughter with a close friend during a workout. In this cycle, people learn that moving brings them real rewards — fun with family, creativity and innovation at work, or simply feeling more grounded in themselves.

When people continue to get these experiences when they are active and move their bodies, their motivation becomes self-perpetuating: they want to keep having these experiences! So movement becomes the gift that keeps on giving and sustains motivation.


It is essential to help people learn to understand their own motivation and to identify strategies that will transform health-promoting decisions from chores that require self-control to immediate gifts they want to experience now (12).

Sustainable physical activity and purposeful movement throughout the day are made up of consistent decisions to do it — choosing to get out of the chair and get to the gym, taking time for a short walk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and wanting to get off Facebook to get enough sleep before an early morning walk with a friend.

This does not mean saying “no” to fitness trackers! In this context, fitness professionals must go beyond seeing tracking as a “tool” and see it as a movement ally, effectively using the levers that science suggests will motivate individuals to choose to move on a regular basis.

Generalizing from neuroscience and other affective and behavioral self-regulation research (4,7,11,14), when people become aware that they can use physical activity to cultivate immediate positive experiences (e.g., well-being, lifted mood, more energy), they will be much more motivated to continue to move — because it feels good now (14,34). Tracking technology holds great promise to help people learn these essential associations.

Fitness tracking apps and wearables can be designed to more powerfully harness intrinsic motivation. They might, for example, guide consumers to ask themselves the right questions and use the best evidence-based strategies for building sustainability. Specifically, they can be developed to identify the specific “whys” and experiences from moving that will be most motivating and meaningful for the individual to pursue, and even, perhaps with whom (41).

But we don’t have to wait for technology to catch up. We can do this right now: ask clients to identify immediately gratifying rewards they can feel when they move and then use activity trackers as a way to create these new positive associations with physical movement. This is a winning combination that converts external rewards (e.g., increasing numbers of steps generated by moving) from activity trackers to feedback about the benefits that science suggests would be more likely to be internally motivating and which they can feel right now (e.g., how physical movement lifts their mood or cultivates focus and creativity at work).


Most fitness professionals are extremely motivated to exercise and are passionate advocates of physical activity. Yet the consumers they aim to convert into fitness enthusiasts are likely to have very different passions and priorities. This is a crucial distinction for fitness professionals to keep in mind: to reach their clients in meaningful ways, fitness professionals need to try and understand their clients and what matters most to them.

What motivates one person will not necessarily motivate another. In fact, even as more and more science suggests that immediate “feel-good” rewards from physical activity may be optimal motivators in general, it’s important to remember that nothing is ever true for everyone. In the Fitbit study mentioned previously, although 10% of participants continued to use them (16), their reasons for continued use are unknown. To date, we do not yet know which type of individuals or personalities will stay motivated to be active from tracking apps. There is still a great deal to be learned.

The goal of the fitness professional is to help clients and patients identify what will make physical activity and movement personally compelling and sufficiently positive and relevant to their daily lives — because this is the spark that will light the fire of their internal motivation and keep it lit. So it is no surprise that coaching based on behavioral science is among the top 20 trends in fitness for 2017 (51).

The goal of the fitness professional is to help their clients identify what will make exercise and daily movement personally compelling and sufficiently positive and relevant to their daily lives. People’s reason for initiating a behavior change has a domino effect and influences the quality of motivation that develops. Research suggests that professionals will be much more successful helping their clients, patients, and consumers stay motivated to enjoy and prioritize exercise when they help them use tracking to become mindful of the immediate positivity that movement brings and internalize the concrete value it delivers to their sense of self and daily lives.

Short-term weight loss and abstract health goals set most people up to fail because they do not make physical activity sufficiently relevant and compelling to beat out people’s other urgent daily goals and roles. Tracking apps alone are likely vulnerable to many of these weaknesses. Fitness professionals may find more success by leveraging what we know about human nature: people like having positive experiences and feeling ownership over their behavior.

Fitness professionals can help spark and sustain client motivation by using three core motivation generators that I call the why, the way, and the do:

The why: harness their values (i.e., “identified motivation” — appreciating how moving benefits one’s daily life).

The way: give permission to select physical activities that generate immediate positive experiences (i.e., “intrinsic motivation” — what feels good and/or is fun).

The do: build a learning mindset (i.e., perceiving physical activity as a lifelong journey where “competence” for being active and overcoming barriers to plans can be learned) (49).

These elements work together synergistically to optimally motivate physical activity participation (42).

These ideas align with key science (42), but they also reflect accepted principles about consumer behavior inside and outside of the fitness industry (37). Marketing guru Seth Godin says that if you want to motivate people to strive for a future-oriented goal, you actually need to figure out how to convert it into “how it feels right now” (20). Organizations are starting to use these science-based ideas to build online, activity tracking combined with Web platforms to enhance engagement and retention by asking participants to discover their “Right Whys” (52).

Regardless of whether we are messaging about physical activity, using tracking tools, or verbally coaching our clients, professionals can spark a love of physical activity and cultivate high-quality motivation and competence in their clients and patients by addressing these three core scientifically supported motivation generators and allying them with trackers to support motivation over the long term.


Science across areas suggests that the quality of motivation is the result of an individual’s “why,” his/her primary purpose or motive for becoming more physically active. People’s “why” for being physically active imbues it with a specific meaning and purpose in their lives.

Are people more likely to keep doing something that they know will make today’s tasks easier to perform or something that might give them an extra year of life in 30 years? Research suggests that a why that aims to help people boost immediate well-being is, in general, more motivating than a why that aims to achieve a vague future outcome (such as weight loss or better health). Feeling better immediately from physical activity makes its specific value and relevancy to daily life very clear, especially when compared with hope-for benefits that might never arrive.

When your client or patient arrives with the stated goal of losing weight or improving their health, you can help guide them to whys that will be more likely to set them up for long-term success.


Does it feel good? Are they having fun? Our experience from doing any behavior (do we like it or hate it?) strongly influences whether we desire to do it again. In general, displeasure increases from high-intensity movement, especially among people who do not actually like exercising at high intensities (14). This means that the way many people are encouraged to approach being physically active (work hard, break a sweat) may actually turn them off of exercising! (Not a good formula for long-term retention or success.)

Yet, nothing is ever true for everyone. Some people do enjoy high-intensity activities, and they should be encouraged to continue. But because, as a population, we generally (and unfortunately) have learned to believe that high-intensity exercise is the only type of movement that counts and is worth doing, it is crucial that fitness professionals reeducate people about the value of all levels of intensity and all types of movement.


Sustained motivation also is a result of successfully foreseeing and dealing with the inevitable conflicts between activity plans and life and generally feeling more competent when it comes to physical activity. This is accomplished with a subtle but powerful shift in mindset: focusing on learning instead of achieving.

Professionals can help their clients stop aiming to achieve perfection (a specific amount of weight lost, minutes on the elliptical, etc.) with their physical activity and start thinking about it as a continuum of success on which they constantly are learning and adjusting. Research shows that a more flexible “learning mindset” (e.g., “I will learn and master the process of fitting consistent physical activity into my week”) is considered to be more motivational than a rigid achievement mindset (e.g., “I will be active every day this week for 30 minutes!”) when learning how to institutionalize a complex new behavior such as physical activity (29).

To cultivate a learning mindset in your clients or patients, toss out the need for inflexible goals and perfection. Instead, help clients understand that they will be most successful if they start with the end in mind: feeling and living better from regular physical activity and integrating it into their lives for a lifetime.

Encourage them to start small. (Bigger easily derails when it comes to sustaining a physically active life.) Set realistic weekly plans, ones that they can succeed with. Use tracking to better understand if their established goals are reasonable or not. With a learning mindset, challenges and barriers are viewed as opportunities to learn, not as setbacks or failures. Flexibility is a more optimal self-management strategy than rigid strategies/plans when it comes to making changes related to physical activity and diets (50). So encourage your clients and members to “flex” their weekly plans and goals as the need arises.

For more details about how to use these motivation-generating methods in your work, read this case study:


Activity tracking and wearables retained their number one ranking on the American College of Sports Medicine’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2017; their use in corporate well-being programs is booming, and they show promise for creating more efficient and patient-centered health care (5,19,51). They will become even more pervasive within our lives though continued technological innovation and societal change.

Yet, we must remember that no new innovative technology, activity tracker, or other tool has the power to drive lasting motivation to move for most. Monitoring numbers inherently might be motivating to some, but counting and logging are not the holy grail of motivation. The novelty of a new tool and this type of quantified feedback quickly wear off for those not inherently enchanted by numbers and graphs. It is people’s relationship with physical activity, whether it feels like a “chore” or a “gift,” that determines whether they will stay motivated.

Fitness professionals will be much more successful helping their clients and patients stay motivated to enjoy and prioritize physical activity when they help them understand that trackers plus movement can help them (a) become mindful of the immediate positivity that moving brings and (b) internalize the concrete value consistent physical activity delivers to their sense of self and daily lives (42,46,49). For individuals and professionals who are excited about the possibilities of tracking apps and wearables, ally with the app: take a synergistic approach and combine tracking with the three motivation generators, the why, the way, and the do.


Tracking apps and wearables that provide feedback inherently may not be motivating. Motivational quality results from people’s primary reason, or motive, for starting to exercise or become more physically active. Ironically, the most common motives tend to be the least motivating long term. Professionals can better motivate and retain clients and patients through applying three key scientific principles in their work.


The author thanks the anonymous reviewers for their comments that greatly improved this article and Tom Futch and Naomi Lucks for their input.


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