A year ago I bought my daughter a fitness tracker for her birthday, and then she bought me one for Mother's Day. Now she lives across the globe, but we can compete to see who gets the most exercise, who takes more daily steps, who's working out harder — basically, who wins. Sounds like a friendly way to motivate each other to get fit and stay fit, right? But only if that arrangement works for you.
The fitness industry has jumped the shark on technology and decided that if a group of co-workers or mother and daughter like a little friendly competition via their fitness trackers, than surely everyone must like it.
Following this trend to its extreme conclusion, gyms across the country have started to sync everyone's workout information on the big screen at the front of the class — and it's not just the chain fitness centers. Even boutique facilities are monitoring, cataloging, rating and putting your exercise on display for all to see in an effort to stay current with the latest exercise fad.
In-studio data visualization enables gym-goers to sync their workouts — and performance — as a way to motivate them to work harder. Imagine your numbers — heart rate, speed, miles cycled and class rank — on the big screen for all to see. So instead of your buddy knowing you took a dismal number of steps yesterday, the stranger on the cycle next to you in spinning class knows he's kicking your butt, too.
And make no mistake, some love the gamification of fitness. Others? Not so much.
"Theoretically when buddies are striving for maximum movement each day, they can playfully compete with each other on the number of miles they walked/ran or the number of steps they took each day," says Darshi Shah, a nutritional therapist and health coach and author of "RIGHT Diet for Autoimmunity." Fitness trackers like Fitbit or native apps in smartphones "seem to help people measure their progress with others."
However, Shah says a more sedentary person might not fare so well. "When you push your body physically and mentally to compete, and you can't ever come out on top, what does this do psychologically?" The answer, she says, is people can lose their mojo because they can't keep up or fit in.
"The fact that we can measure our performance is key to improving and pushing our limits, but only when we compare the results to our previous results," says Jordan McMullen, a fitness, health and wellness blogger at Skinny Redefined in New York City. "When we compare our results to those of others it can be very mentally defeating and is not beneficial to training progress or improvement."
Research suggests that if you think people are watching and evaluating, you'll be motivated to work harder. An exergaming study in which participants were trained to cyber cycle while evaluating their pedaling effort found they increased their exercise efforts. (Exergaming refers to video games with exercising components to them; think Wii Fit.)
"We inherently want to know how we 'stack up' against others," says Brian Durbin, a personal trainer in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. "In addition to giving us an external marker, which can motivate us to personally excel, comparing ourselves to others both in the moment and afterward by comparing results, also creates a socially revealing situation. In other words, we cannot hide where we rank or what kind of effort we put forth. Managers use this strategy in all forms of business to motivate people to produce."
Durbin also sees the downsides. If you don't feel competent that you can compete, you won't. He recommends that people be matched with others in their skill level so as not to become demotivated. Plus, there's the question of sustaining exercise simply based on competition. Most of us need more reward than that after a while.
Shah agrees. "I would also add that it is critical to set a goal for yourself (or your partner as a team) at the beginning. You'll need a predetermined reward at the halfway point and again at the finish line, whether that's weight loss, increased fitness or another end point."
Plus, McMullen points out, if you're particularly interested in someone else's results, it's always helpful to talk to them about it and maybe they can help you improve — even if you are "competing." If squaring off with a lot of people isn't your cup of tea, that's fine too. Stick with working out with a buddy or on your own and skip the competition entirely.