Technology used to be the “sleeping giant” of the health and fitness industry. Although, as an industry, we were a little slow embracing the new fitness technology revolution — the giant has now been awoken and we need to manage it to ensure return on investment. In other words, it is crucial to consider the benefit/risk ratio when we integrate new fitness technology into our clubs — especially if we are taking a member-centric approach to conducting business, which, thankfully, many of us are. Last year, Expert Review of Medical Devices ran an editorial written by a group of scientists that highlighted how new digital tech devices get to be commercialized without clear proof of their effectiveness (Morone et al., 2016). At the same time, many costumers — especially tech-savvy millennials — have become so comfortable with emerging technology that they are constantly looking for companies that push the envelope. It is important for a health club to meet the technological expectations of this modern and growing consumer-base. However, this should be done with some prudence.
This post offers some science-based tips on how to best evaluate technology so you can optimize and grow your business.
1. For the most part, technology is not meant to be a replacement for your professional staff.
New devices are now being used to boost certain aspects of physical training, such as intensity, participation, engagement and feedback. However, technology should not be elevated to being anything more than another tool in the toolbox. For instance, in my personal experience, technology-based feedback technology is better implemented when combined with some kind of personal coaching. As we move into a new world of artificial intelligence (AI), it is important to realize the most successful applications of AI support human intelligence; when AI is used to try and replace the human element, bad things can happen (Morone et al., 2016).
Early studies show that it is the combination of personal (human-based) training and technology that moves members forward. A paper by Krista Cross of Kennesaw State University suggests that some people can feel motivated enough by their trainer alone and do not necessarily require computerized technology (Cross, 2015). This should probably not be forgotten when considering your next investment in digital health. Only consider technology that you can validate in some manner as being able to move you staff and/or members forward.
2. Invest in tools that support your members’ fitness and health goals, but be mindful of the potential negative effects.
It is safe to assume that a majority of your members entered your four walls looking to make some sort of positive change in their life. When it comes to goal setting and fitness tracking, novel technology eliminates many aspects of guesswork, replacing estimates with real data. People generally enjoy setting goals and tracking them; this process motivates many, and many find the accountability and sense of achievement that comes with this process helpful. Victories, however you weave that narrative with your member, are an important part of your member’s journey and also generally correlate with positive retention statistics for your club.
However, I have seen these applications go awry. For instance, if your members see their goals have not been met, or you force members to adhere to your version of success (e.g. weight loss), this can have a negative ripple effect. In this scenario, technology can be a reminder of a personal “failure.”
In their study of contextual influences on the use and non-use of digital technology, Misha Patel and Aisling Ann O’Kanne of the University College London, UK, observed a certain tension in the information needs of exercisers. Fitness information could help people monitor and adjust their sessions, but in some cases, it could also demotivate them. A similar conclusion was reached by a research team from the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh studying the use of pedometers among men trying to lose weight. While the majority of their participants found digital health devices helpful for goal setting and competence, a minority had a negative view. Not surprisingly, the latter group was comprised of men who were not able to reach their goals. They viewed the experience as controlling, dispiriting and undermining their autonomy. This group preferred to rely on coaches and social groups to stay motivated. (Donnachie, Wyke, Mutrie, & Hunt, 2017).
These findings imply that products that are being marketed to us as “set it and forget it” protocols should be evaluated critically. Dr. Craig Donnachie and his colleagues also suggest that it is important to identify early those who express a negative view of self-monitoring and offer them different types of support to reach their goals (Donnachie et al., 2017). Again, technology is a valuable tool, but only when applied correctly.
All in all, goal-setting technology can be very advantageous, but it seems to appeal more to those who have the inherent ability to be self-directed. One thought is the customer segment who reach out to trainers and are willing to make that kind of investment likely do so because self-direction has failed them. This particular group has potentially struggled to reach their goals in the past and their experience with technology (that reminds them of their failure) may be off-putting. These members likely require a non-technical intervention at the onset, so it would be foolish to simply think handing them your training app is a solution to their desire to change.
- Consider the distraction vs. disruption elements of fitness technology
Patel and O’Kanne note that research into how technology is used in health clubs and gyms is scarce. The truth is that our members’ interactions with technology are not that well understood yet. We tend to get spoon-fed marketing information from our vendors and take it at face value. Reported results are anecdotal and often rely on self-reports from hand-picked users. Patel and O’Kanne’s study found that in our gyms, technology often acts as a distraction from a difficult exercise, for example, watching Netflix while running on a treadmill. This is usually welcomed and seen as a form of entertainment. However, new technology (e.g smartphones) have become a disruption to many, frustrating some members who are trying to remain focused (Patel & O’Kanne, 2015).
The amount of additional friction that any new technology is going to create should be considered when evaluating new vendors. Friction, as it pertains to user experience (UX) design, is the extra elements that technology adds to a process that inhibits someone from accomplishing their desired outcome. Although I am an evangelist of digital health, an inconvenient truth is that technology can also prevent full immersion into the experience of exercise. One of the most lucrative intrinsic rewards in the habit loop of exercise is the state of “flow” (which has long been lauded for its multi-layered health benefits). Unwanted disruptions of flow can thwart member enjoyment and even lead to disengagement. Patel and O’Kanne, therefore, suggest that technology in the gym needs to balance the need to disassociate from any given exercise routine with the contrarian need of being able to remain focused, thus achieving optimal performance. Moreover, a survey in the U.K. showed that because of using technology (most often a smartphone) over 200,000 people had an injury in the gym, suggesting there might also be safety implications to using hand-held technology while immersed in exercise (Halvorson, 2017).
- Recognize that your members likely use the same technology in different ways.
Our members have a wide array of technical literacy. Operators should not assume that all technology will be used in the same way by everybody and for all exercises. Patel and O’Kanne showed in their study that members can opt-in or opt-out of using technology based on different factors that need to be recognized, such as the type of exercise, physical space requirements and their personal goals (Patel & O’Kanne, 2015).
Any piece of tech that is adopted by your club(s) should be seen as a context-based tool; in other words, technology cannot be context-independent. Your return on investment on any piece of technology will be determined by the dynamics of your environment, as well as by the unique individual attributes of your respective members. Therefore, the factors you should consider when onboarding new technology will likely be different than mine, and that of your competitors. Things to consider are the size of your club, type of exercises you members engage in and your members’ preferences and values, to name just a few. Also, although technology now offers a myriad of physical and biological tracking options, studies show that usually our members are only familiar with common metrics, such as calorie count (Cross, 2015). Studies on wearable devices also suggest that acceptance of technology usually depends on the perceived usefulness and ease of use, as well as subjective norms and attitudes (e.g. Lunney, Cunningham & Eastin, 2016) — more evidence affirming that different people approach technology in very different ways.
- Don’t forget the potential of “social” gamification.
Those that saw Dr. Nicholas Christakis talk at IHRSA are familiar with social contagion theory. Social interaction with other people is considered an effective strategy for keeping people motivated in a fitness program. Competitions can work for some, especially males. Gamification that is architected to support collaborative achievement tends to work better overall. For instance, a study of friend and family support for weight loss published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that being assigned a partner had little effect on the end result of a weight loss challenge. A positive effect on the participants’ weight goals was achieved only if their partner participated actively and lost weight as well (Kumanyika et al, 2009). This brings us to social gamification, which has been defined as “the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals” (Burke, 2014, p.1). We tend to be social animals. We want to know we belong. Carefully implemented technology can provide just the right dose of social engagement, making it enjoyable and motivating whilst supporting our needs for gratification and identity building. Once again, how gamification is implemented (through technology) will be determined by the dynamics of your club.
Brooks, B. (2013). Technology can help health clubs with their membership goals. Club Industry, 29(3), 46.
Burke, B. (2014). Gartner redefines gamification. Retrieved August 21, 2017, from http://blogs.gartner.com/brian_burke/2014/04/04/gartner-redefines-gamification/
Cross, K. L. (2015). The Revolution of Fitness: A Contemporary Analysis of How Technology and Personal Training Influences Consumer Behavior in Two Atlanta, Georgia Fitness Centers. 20th Annual symposium of Student Scholars and Undergraduate Research Reception. Kennesaw State University.
Donnachie, C., Wyke, S., Mutrie, N., & Hunt, K. (2017). ‘It’s like a personal motivator that you carried around wi’ you’: utilising self-determination theory to understand men’s experiences of using pedometers to increase physical activity in a weight management programme. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity, 14, 1-14. doi:10.1186/s12966-017-0505-z
Halvorson, R. (2017). Do you need a better technology policy? Should-and can-anything be done to regulate the use of smartphones and tablets in the gym?. IDEA Fitness Journal, (3). 80-82.
Kumanyika, S. K., Wadden, T. A., Shults, J., Fassbender, J. E., Brown, S. D., Bowman, M. A., & … Wu, X. (2009). Trial of family and friend support for weight loss in African American adults. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(19), 1795-1804.
Lunney, A., Cunningham, N. R., & Eastin, M. S. (2016). Wearable fitness technology: A structural investigation into acceptance and perceived fitness outcomes. Computers in Human Behavior, 65114-120. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.08.007
Morone, G., Paolucci, S., Mattia, D., Pichiorri, F., Tramontano, M., & Iosa, M. (2016). The 3Ts of the new millennium neurorehabilitation gym: therapy, technology, translationality. Expert Review of Medical Devices, 13(9), 785-787. doi:10.1080/17434440.2016.1218275.
Patel, M., & O’kane, A. (2015). Contextual influences on the use and non-use of digital technology while exercising at the gym. Proceedings of the 2015 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI-2015), 2923–2932.New York: ACM
Dr. Mike Rucker is a charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association, a member of the American Psychological Association and is accredited by the American College of Sports Medicine. In 2016, Dr. Rucker was recognised as one of the 50 most influential people in digital health by Onalytica. He is a peer-reviewed author and currently functions as Verywell.com’s health technology expert, as well as holds the position of Vice President of Technology for Active Wellness.