As rec directors, club owners and fitness professionals, we share a devotion to helping others lead healthier lives. Effective mental health solutions are crucial right now, especially for younger adults and adolescents. Those in this demographic are developing their sense of identity and stress-coping strategies, and their wellbeing crisis emerged even prior to the pandemic. For instance, a 2019 report found that more than one in three high school students felt persistent sadness and hopelessness, and one in six youths made a suicide plan in the previous year.
Of course, the pandemic introduced more challenges. In late 2021, mental health reviews revealed an average doubling of anxiety and depression symptoms, with younger adults hit hardest.
As lockdowns began, virtually all studies reported a decline in average activity levels. At the same time, interest in fitness tech grew. In 2020, fitness app downloads increased by 46 percent across the globe and wearables were in high demand.
In this first installation of the series, we explore the question: Are wearables and mobile applications effective for behavior change?
Fitness wearables and mobile applications improve health awareness by supporting self-monitoring and self-regulation. This can support a positive self-identity because it reflects a dedication to health and fitness goals.
Early adopters of fitness technologies tend to be younger adults, including college and university students. Most fitness app downloads occur in those under 40 years of age, and up to one in four college students uses fitness wearables regularly.
Regular exercise reduces one’s risk of stress-related mood disorders. These are common among young adults. In fact, 18- to 29-year-olds are highly prone to loneliness and depression. Regular exercise can reduce feelings of loneliness even if we workout alone, so devices that support the exercise habit also offer the promise of better mental health.
Short- vs. long-term outcomes
In the short term, the initial stages of fitness tech adoption deliver positive mental health advantages. This can occur even without completing a single workout. Just by downloading a fitness app, users often feel less anxious about following through on intentions to exercise. Purchases and downloads may be a first step in adopting an active lifestyle, but this relief is temporary.
Most research shows little long-term benefits to using wearables. For example, a University of Wisconsin study gave students fitness trackers, but after three months there was no measurable change to their fitness or daily activity level. Similarly, a 2017 study of high school students found that fitness trackers improved activity for the first four weeks but had no effect on physical activity by week eight.
The unused fitness wearable or forgotten app may be an unpleasant reminder that we are not following through with healthy intentions. This could help explain why at least 30 percent of users discontinue wearable use within seven months, and why most fitness apps are ultimately abandoned. However, there might be some ways that gym owners can help add value to those wearable gadgets and motivate users to adopt a regular fitness routine.
Social support during exercise
The fitness wearable or app can provide ample personal data, but if users are not inspired to take action, their use may not be sustained. One of the missing links may be a social element. Studies where individuals were given fitness trackers in combination with face-to-face guidance showed increases in physical activity levels.
Physical activity can protect mental health, not only due to its physical component, but also because of its social component. Many fitness tech enthusiasts use wearables and apps to exercise alone, but there are benefits to exercising around or with others. Going to the gym offers a more social experience, because most facility visits involve communicating with others and spending time around like-minded individuals. Social encounters help individuals view themselves as part of a larger community. These interactions counter perceptions of loneliness and support exercise adherence.
Gyms can better leverage the social domain of fitness through group exercise offerings, thus helping associate facility visits with stress relief.
Merging with mental health support
Many self-monitoring apps and fitness wearables are supported by content that addresses mental health. From tracking daily mood to measuring sleep and heart rate variability, a whole-person approach helps users better manage the stress of modern life. Top-selling brands are integrating both approaches. For instance, Fitbits come with Relax Mode for mindful breathing, and Apple watches offer breathwork and mindfulness features.
The anxiety caused by the pandemic fueled investment in mindfulness apps. From 2020 to 2021, for example, consumer spending on meditation apps Calm and Headspace increased by approximately 30 percent. Both of these apps are appealing to a wide range of ages but are most used by adults under 40.
Engagement in mindfulness-promoting apps may improve self-regulation, which can have beneficial spill-over effects into other areas of our lives. Those with high mindfulness have higher intrinsic motivation to exercise, suggesting they could be an ideal target demographic for new exercise initiatives.
Where do we go from here?
Fitness tech will continue to evolve to address the motivation gap, and hopefully wearable devices keep moving toward an integrated, whole-person solution that includes both exercise and mental health support.
Facilities that embrace and accommodate these technologies may gain an additional way to appeal to a younger demographic. Many gyms and campus recreation facilities are using leaderboards to stoke exercise motivation. Trials are underway for new offerings such as virtual reality and exergaming technologies.
The common denominator among users of mental health tech and fitness tech is both want to feel better. Delivering on this promise is a crucial imperative.
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