Fitness trackers need to offer more support to help low-income families to improve their health, says Northeastern University professor

Andrea Grimes Parker and her colleagues envision fitness trackers that go beyond simple goal setting, including trackers that prompt families to reflect on activities they enjoyed. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Since the first Fitbit came on the market in 2008, wearable fitness trackers have been promising to help motivate us to get healthier and stay active. But for many people, especially those living in low-income neighborhoods, getting fit is more complicated than simply knowing how many steps you’ve taken.

Being active is more difficult in low-income neighborhoods, says Andrea Grimes Parker, an assistant professor at Northeastern, who designs technology to help vulnerable and marginalized populations overcome barriers to living a healthy life. Typically, these areas have fewer parks or sidewalk spaces where it is safe for children to play. Adults working long work hours or physically taxing jobs may struggle to find the time or energy to be active. Fitbits aren’t helping to solve these problems.

Andrea Grimes Parker. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Existing fitness platforms focus so much on goal setting, data collection, and visualization of data,” says Parker, who has joint appointments in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern. “But that is a very limited amount of support. We need to think about how to help families derive value from these platforms, beyond that surface level interaction.”

Parker and her colleagues have been working with families in low-income neighborhoods to understand if fitness trackers could help these families be more active.

“We see all of these fitness tracking platforms on the market today, like Fitbits and the UNICEF Power Band,” Parker says. “While wearable fitness trackers offer opportunities for recording and visualizing physical activity data, how useful are those platforms actually, for families and for low socioeconomic status families in particular?”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children from low-income families are disproportionately affected by obesity. These children are at an increased risk for a variety of health issues, including diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. They’re also more likely to have obesity as adults.

If fitness trackers can help promote regular physical activity, they could be an effective tool for decreasing the risk of obesity. But when the researchers provided families with fitness trackers for two months, they found that the fitness data alone wasn’t enough. Parents and children were comparing step counts, but discussions about ways to continue being active or how being active connects to health were more rare.

“The data prompts past-oriented thinking,” says Herman Saksono, a doctoral student at Northeastern who was the lead author of the study. “But being active also requires us to think about how we can be active in the future.”

Parker and her colleagues envision fitness trackers that go beyond simple goal setting. Trackers that prompt families to reflect on activities they enjoyed or social connections that helped them to be more active. Trackers that are tied into local support systems like neighborhood gyms or community centers. Trackers that highlight the links between physical health and mental and emotional wellbeing.

They’re working on creating some of this technology now. Saksono has designed an app called Storywell that unlocks interactive storybook chapters when families achieve their fitness goals. The chapters have reflective prompts that encourage families to talk about the challenges they have overcome and the positive feelings they have when they’re active together.

“Decades of health research shows that being active is not just how many steps you take or how many calories you burn,” says Saksono. “Being active means finding activities that you enjoy. Finding friends or family members who can support you to be active. Finding places where you can exercise comfortably.”

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