With the holiday season quickly approaching, something crossed my mind. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the symbolic meaning of the holidays or the traditions surrounding them, but rather our burning desire to buy as many gifts as fiscally feasible, engaging in our own individual versions of brand signaling to the outside world. There is a lot of tech out there- some we watch, some we listen to, and yes, some that we even wear as a part of us. I was wondering just how exactly the multi-billion dollar fitness wearable industry has impacted both our physical and mental health. It seems like for the amount of monetary and human capital poured into research and development, marketing investments, and brand establishment, we might have more to show for it, being the hyper-consumers we are.
I wanted to take some time to break down a few different wearables, but more importantly, evaluate just how worth it they really are. I’m looking at this not just from a dollars and cents standpoint, but also in regards to the opportunity cost of wearing or not wearing this year’s newest smart watch. There are hidden costs to wearing these devices, and for all we know it very well might be a net positive, but I’d like to peel back the layers of the onion and determine if we are getting a product/service/experience worth the hundreds of dollars and hours of our attention that we currently pay.
Full transparency, I currently own a Withings/Nokia sleep tracking mat and a Fossil brand smart watch, but my usage of both devices has dwindled in the past four to six months. Additionally, I purchased a smart watch for my wife last year, and she really utilizes and enjoys it a great deal. I am not promoting the use of any particular device by writing this article, nor am I recommending you shouldn’t invest in any of these devices. I just want to shed some light on the pros and cons of owning and committing time to these bits of technology. It is a brave new world, with the wearable technology sector garnering more and more attention from investors and from consumers alike, but is it worth it?
Wearable Technology Today
For the sake of expediency, let’s fast forward from the first known fitness tracker creation in 1977 by Polar, to today’s iterations of wearable technology. There are pedometers, heart rate monitors, portable EKGs, and sleep trackers, with some products encapsulating all of these technologies into one piece, such as the Apple iWatch. As far as the most common devices are concerned, smart watches have captured the bulk of the consumer’s purchases, growing from nine million purchased in 2016, to an estimated 20.1 million purchased in 2019 (Statista).
There are also posture monitoring devices that will vibrate when you’re slouching, and even “smart” yoga pants that attempt to correct your form in particular poses. Probably one of the most interesting concepts to date, is a swimwear company that places a UV sensor in the fabric to let you know when UV levels are at their highest, reminding you to put on more sunscreen via notifications to your phone. There even exists a pair of socks, aimed at helping diabetics who experience neuropathy, that can detect temperature increases in the foot to alert the wearer that they may be starting to form ulcerations before actually incurring a serious injury.
Aside from smart watches and garments tracking your every move, even more traditional accessories like hearing aids and eyeglasses are getting into the game. This hearing aid has a built-in “personal AI assistant for your ears”, while this model of eyeglasses comes packed with features like AR (augmented reality) display, 1080p video recording, and Alexa assistance. The market has been absolutely flooded with “smart” wearables and accessories, but just how much benefit any one of these devices can provide is still up for debate. In my attempt to remain in my professional lane and scope of expertise, I’d like to focus on wearables focused more on activity tracking, calorie expenditure, and sleep tracking.
So. Much. Data.
Step counts, calories burned, hours spent in REM sleep, minutes spent standing, etcetera. One could reasonably assume that the more information we have access to, the better and more informed decisions we can make moving forward. I would like to make the argument that this is only true if the person attaining the information has the resources to actually do (or feel like they can do) something with it. For example, two people are given sleep trackers to determine how much sleep and the quality of that sleep they obtain every night over the course of the week. They have been provided these devices by their primary care physicians to evaluate potential contributing factors to high blood pressure, increased body weight, and baseline stress levels.
Person A lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood with low rates of crime and has a large king bed, with whom he shares only with his partner. He is financially stable with his current job and has a good support network with his partner, close friends and family.
Person B lives in a low-rise apartment within the urban core of a large metropolitan area. There is a relatively high amount of crime, and he routinely hears gunshots and/or emergency vehicles throughout the night. He works sporadic shifts at a warehouse, and has three small children living with him. Living paycheck to paycheck, this person is financially unstable and struggles to balance his kid’s schedules with that of his place of employment.
After one week, both people submit their results of the sleep tracker to their PCP, and the results are equally negative. The average adult should be aiming for seven to eight hours of actual sleep (different from sleep opportunity, which is the window of time between lights out and alarm clock). During that sleep, at least a quarter of it should be spent in deep sleep, which is the most restorative phase of sleep. One cannot control the amount spent in each stage, but certain environmental factors such as random noise, stress, light, and bedtime irregularity can be detrimental to the attainment of adequate amounts. Both subjects in this scenario were only obtaining five hours of sleep on average, per night, for the entire week, and less than ten percent was spent in deep sleep. The physician presents each person with a PDF file detailing exactly how much sleep each was acquired and several specific ways to increase that amount. When thinking about seeking and consuming information, I refer to the author of “Too Much Information”, Cass Sunstein (Professor at Harvard Law School/ Founder and Director of the Program of Behavioral Economics and Public Policy). In regards to the scenario above, each individual might ask two questions-
“The first is: Would I benefit? The second is: Can I change the outcome if I don’t like it? The questions are closely related, but the second puts a spotlight on people’s sense of agency. The capacity for control generates positive feelings in itself. It can produce a benefit, in terms of (say) health or economics, but it has independent value.”Cass Sunstein, Author of “Too Much Information”
What’s important in this situation is the second question, “Can I change the outcome if I don’t like it?” and for all we know, Persons A and B may be able to change. But on its face, it seems abundantly clear that one subject will be more able to change the outcome due to environmental factors and resources (financial/employment security, family support, and lower levels of nocturnal disturbances/crime). This is all assuming many things, that given the limited amount of information I have provided, are impossible to know, but the point is to highlight the simple fact that someone’s agency to affect change greatly influences how useful information will be. We could easily substitute the sleep tracker and amount of sleep, with a pedometer and steps per day, or even a smartphone app and calories consumed per day. With copious amounts of data points available, whether or not the devices obtaining said data are worth it, depends greatly on the ability of the individual to initiate change.
The dreaded two word phrase, loaded with ambiguity, strikes again. As previously discussed in the article “My Most Commonly Asked Questions”, the best answer to the question at hand is, “it depends”. Deciding whether or not wearables are “worth it” requires us to determine what “worth it” means, and what each individual can actually do about the data that those wearables provide. Even conducting something as rudimentary as a pros and cons list, could prove to be extremely useful. Let’s use another example, this time with a smartwatch-
- Track your activity (exercise, step counts, time standing, etc)
- Monitor heart rate variability
- Ability to stay connected
- Another device to worry about keeping track of (charging/maintenance)
- Information provided could be painful
- Ability to stay connected (could be a bad thing as well)
- Cost is a significant barrier to entry
I’m sure there are plenty of other pros and cons that belong on this list, depending on what kind of device someone is using, but let’s keep things concise. I’d like to focus on bullet point number three for each category. The ability to stay “connected” is, in my opinion, something that started out as an overwhelmingly positive attribute of a particular product, but over the last few years has been increasingly looked at as an insidious extension of our attention economy. On the other hand (insert smart watch joke), there are numerous ways that these devices’ connectivity can be a life-changing or sometimes life-saving aspect of their functionality. The World Health Organization has reported that “approximately 28-35% of people aged 65 and over fall each year… increasing to 32-42% for those over 70 years of age”. By using accelerometers (for detecting both static and dynamic forces) and gyroscopes (for detecting angular orientation), smart watches can signal for help if the wearer has fallen.
The Bottom Line
Determining something’s worth should be looked at in a more nuanced way. When circling back to the primary posit, I think it’s absolutely critical to know oneself, to determine if the purchase of a health/fitness wearable is more about genuine utility or about signaling something to others. The purchase could be driven by something as simple as the interest in new technology, and that’s perfectly fine too, as for any technology to progress there is a need for early adopters. For the average user, will activity tracking and quick access to text messages be worth the monetary and time investment? Maybe. For the more niche user, will fall detection and reminders to take one’s medication on time be worth it? Possibly. There are many arguments to be had about the efficacy of wearable health/fitness trackers, but buying one with the expectation that it will instantly motivate you to exercise more, might be a bit misguided. However, maybe the purchase alone may serve as some sort of subconscious commitment to moving more. Again, whether or not wearables are worth it, depends greatly on the wearer and their ability to actually do something with the information obtained.
If you read this article hoping for a more direct answer leaning one way or another, might I recommend checking out an advertisement laden, click seeking, review site of the products in question (for which the operators receive free products and/or advertising revenue). On the other hand (insert another smart watch joke), if you read this article with the hopes of being walked through a sort of objective thought experiment to determine if wearables would be worth it, to you in particular, then thanks again for tuning in.
Yours in Wellness,