Partner Science with Your Activity Tracker for a Lifetime of Motivation

Oct 12, 2017

By Michelle Segar, PhD

Are activity trackers – whether worn on the wrist or accessed as an app in a smartphone – really all we need to get motivated and stay that way? Science supports a finding that sock drawers full of discarded and abandoned trackers hint at: for most people who start tracking, the app alone does not promote long-term motivation and sustainable behavior change.

While trackers are an exciting, they aren’t magic. Just like any new approach or tool to becoming more active (remember NordicTrack?), wearables and activity trackers are simply new ways to encourage movement. Once the novelty wears off and life gets busier, the potency of wearables to motivate can decrease.

But there’s good news: Whether you’re just embarking on including exercise in your life, or you’ve had failure after failure, a few simple, science-backed principles provide a solid foundation for a lifetime of success—and your app can help.

What Science Says

The most popular reasons people have for exercising, like“for my health” and “to lose weight,”don’t seem to keep most motivated long term. They are too vague (and, paradoxically, too logical!) to drive behavior much beyond the initial burst of motivation. Activity trackers may provide novelty that extends that period of energy, but not in seemingly significant ways. Research findings suggest that authentic, high-quality, and lasting motivation comes from within. (Findings generating out of the potent self-determination theory.) A powerful reframing of motive and purpose from external to internal can get us moving for a lifetime. I call these three simple principles the Why, the Way, and the Do.

The Right Why: Exercise for immediate improvement in quality of life. Mounting research suggests that the best motivation for daily movement is aiming to improve your quality of life, now: the energy boost and mood lift you need to accomplish your daily tasks and care for the

people and projects you most value. Simply becoming aware that we can use physical activity as a strategy to cultivate immediate positive experiences such as well-being, lifted mood, more energy, and connecting with loved ones provides continual motivation because it feels good now and fuels what matters most.

The Right Way: Chose activities that feel good. The ways in which you move your body, your way of being active, are profoundly related to whether you’ll stay motivated. We often force ourselves to be active in ways that we don’t like or that even feel punishing because we think it’s the “right” way. But we naturally avoid what feels bad and approach what feels good. When you give yourself permission to choose physical activities that feel good while you’re doing them, you’ll want to do it again, and again,and again. (Science even suggests this has the potential to motivate you unconsciously!)

The Right Do: Be flexible and keep learning. Society has taught us a prescriptive approach to being active: “Achieve 150 minutes of moderate intensity per week . . . Hit 10,000 steps every day . . . yada, yada, yada.” Some people stay motivated and succeed with this approach. But for many more, this paradigm creates an achievement mindset that sets us up to fail and quit when we inevitably can’t meet these very specific and fixed goals.

Carol Dweck’s elegant work on how different mindsets impact motivation and persistence fits well here. Instead of perceiving missed or “imperfect” workouts as setbacks, consider them as learning opportunities—about the many unexpected ways you can keep going, shift, modify, and pivot, in the face of adversity. Having a new flexible mindset will keep you motivated to persist in the face of challenges.

3 Ways to Ally with Your App

Staying motivated to move might mean you have to move away from using tracking just to achieve quantitative goals. Instead, ally with your app to track how your activities reflect the processes that science suggests will keep you succeeding long-term.

1.Track even the smallest activities. Forget ambitious goals if they haven’t worked for you in the past. Starting very—very!—small, with the aim of just moving more in some way every day, is strategic when sustainability is your goal. This means you count everything, because everything counts: pushing a cart at the supermarket, walking the dog, doing laundry in the basement and carrying it upstairs, doing yoga, playing catch, skating. Use your tracker as a partner that shows you that it all really does add up, and then appreciate how much activity you are already doing each day.

2.Track the changing quality of your daily life. Are you feeling happier, performing better as a partner, parent, or professional on days when you are more active? How do you feel on the days you don’t move much? To discover these associations, check the numbers on your device. Then use a simple journal or Excel file to track the relationship between how much your move on a given day and changes in mood, energy, and how you perform in your most cherished roles. In my coaching system, I’ve found that recognizing the very real benefits of movement on the things that matter most to be the most important motivator on sustainable behavior change.

3.Track your flexibility and creativity. If it hasn’t worked for you in your past attempts, exchange your achievement mindset for a learning mindset and have fun building your relationship with daily movement. Tweak it, change it, and add to it as you learn your likes and dislikes. In your journal or spreadsheet, note the different activities you’ve tried, as well as the creative solutions you’ve invented for yourself when life threw a curveball at your exercise schedule.

For a worksheet and case study showing the specific messages and strategies for implementing the Why, the Way, the Do with tracking apps for yourself or the people you work with (patients, clients, employees), click here. It is easy to ally with the app for sustained motivation.  

Perform Better by Moving from the “Quantified Self” to the “Feeling Self”

Tracking technology and wearables hold great promise for helping us understand the essential associations between taking care of ourselves and having renewed energy to care for what we value. When we move away from focusing on our “quantified self”—steps or hours or numbers on the scale—to noticing our “feeling self,” opportunities abound to learn which kinds of activities actually fuel us for living our best lives.

Remember: Human beings tend to make choices based on what we anticipate feeling from our actions: if we like it, if it makes us feel good, we want to do it more. So take that wearable out of the drawer, partner up, and have fun!  

Read my full article about the science and method for allying with the app in this American College of Sport’s Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal feature article. (Free to read until 12/31/17). Watch this 2-minute video where I talk about crafting your “right why” and “right way” to boost the motivational potential of using tracking apps and wearables.

About the Author

Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, behavioral sustainability scientist and author of “No Sweat! How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness” is Director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center.

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