FitBit, Jawbone etc won’t do the work for you in the gym

The new year is quickly approaching, which means an inordinate number of people driven by resolutions of losing weight will soon be signing up for gym memberships. The difference now from, say, a decade ago is that many will be incorporating smartphone apps and gadgets such as FitBits into their efforts to slim down. However, a recent experiment highlights a very human reality at play here – that technology alone can’t make us shed kilos, because it can’t improve our willpower for doing the hard work required.

In the experiment, researchers from Duke University in North Carolina followed 365 study participants, some of whom used an app specially designed to motivate exercise and proper diet.

The app reminded these individuals at regular intervals to move around more and to eat better, but the results after two years of tracking are perhaps not surprising: no appreciable weight loss.

The research went a step further with a separate control group, whose members also used smartphones to self-monitor and self-report their progress but whose primary motivation came from physical coaching with flesh-and-blood dietitians.

After meeting the coaches for six weeks, the participants netted concrete results – almost two kilograms of weight loss per person. Once they switched from in-person meetings to monthly phone check-ins, however, the wheels fell off the effort and the weight losses tailed off. Despite this reality, sales of fitness devices remain strong, with the industry expected to rise in value to US$5.4 billion by 2019 from $2bn in 2014.

Yet many of these devices – which are typically inexpensive at about $100 – are novelty items that are bought and quickly forgotten. About a third of them sit unused six months after purchase, according to the research firm Endeavour Partners.

Even FitBit admitted in regulatory filings this year that only half of its 20 million users were still active.

Just as with a gym membership that ends up unused after an initial bout of good-intentioned enthusiasm, people are buying gadgets that promise to help only to eventually hit that inevitable willpower wall. If technology is going to spur people into doing things they don’t want to do, it’s going to have to work on a deeper level.

A growing body of research that suggests willpower is a finite resource that can ebb and flow, like petrol in a car, may point the way to these future attempts.

The Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister believes he proved this “ego depletion” theory in 2012 by forcing one group of test subjects to abstain from eating a plate of cookies placed in front of them, while others were allowed to dig in.

The subjects who were forced to abstain were then unable to solve challenging puzzles presented to them afterwards. The cookie-engorged participants, on the other hand, had no problems with the puzzles, leading Mr Baumeister to conclude that mustering up the willpower to resist temptation ultimately drains the brain of its desire to do much of anything.

Extrapolated into the real world, the experiment suggests why so many people find it hard to stick to a regimen of regular exercise and healthy eating. Getting through daily life, including working at a tough job or dealing with a stressful commute, may be using up the willpower reserves we need to maintain good health habits.

Such research is bound to fuel the idea that mental resolve can be replenished or strengthened through external stimuli. Pharmaceuticals such as Adderall or modafinil already promise greater focusing abilities, but they also carry a host of side effects – not the least of which is possible addiction.

There are also the ethical questions about technology, whether through pharmaceuticals or genetic engineering, should even try to mess with something as internal as willpower. Slumping on the couch to watch several hours of television after work isn’t the healthiest thing to do, but it is a very human thing. Technology may ultimately never solve the problem of improving willpower because the two concepts are diametrically opposed. Technology by its very nature is supposed to make a given task easier or more convenient, yet willpower is needed to accomplish something difficult.

When it comes to losing weight, there just isn’t an easy way out. Somehow, we’re just going to have to figure out a way to stick it out at the gym.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species

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