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Dec. 12, 2022

A Deep Dive into Human Factors and Fitness Technology

A Deep Dive into Human Factors and Fitness Technology

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A Deep Dive into Human Factors and Fitness Technology

It’s time for another Human Factors Cast deep dive! This week we will be exploring smart fitness technology through the human factors of activity tracking, and persuasive design. There is no shortage of options in the health and fitness technology market. In the past, we’ve explored wearables that monitor physical health and mental well-being, but in this deep dive, we’ll be investigating home fitness equipment, fitness applications, and fitness-focus wearables.

What is fitness technology?

As gyms closed their doors during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, peoples’ fitness routines were disrupted. Fitness technology increased in popularity as a way for people to create new exercise routines at home. As gyms opened back up, users began valuing convenience as they were able to choose between the gym or working out at home. Gym attendance went up, but many chose to still work out at home on some days. The market for this at-home technology continues to advance to include new types of gadgets and experiences with specific purposes in mind. Even traditional exercise tools are becoming more high-tech, like this smart body roller that connects to an app for more personalized cool-downs after a workout. Individual users have found their own ways to use the technology in a way that works for them.

Smart Home Fitness Equipment

While it may be easy to assume we are talking about wearables when referring to fitness technology, there’s a whole sector of the technology market that is aimed at converting your home into a gym. Smart home fitness equipment may not all look the same. Some of this equipment is designed to look like recognizable gym equipment, such as a stationary bike, a treadmill, or a rowing machine, with added interactivity that tracks the users’ exercise. Others aren’t as recognizable - such as the several fitness mirrors on the market. The equipment allows for connectivity through applications or services and may include personalized workouts, one-on-one training, or classes.

The success of Peloton led to more home fitness competition, but it also became an example of how the passive fitness participant may struggle to maintain motivation and habits. Users were drawn to the novelty of Peloton’s bikes and treadmills, with its touchscreen for interactive workout videos. Despite Peloton’s initial success during the pandemic, average monthly use by Peloton subscribers is down. Later, we’ll look at what human factors in design go into successfully maintaining routine and motivation. An important consideration is that smart gym equipment like Peleton might also be out of reach for many fitness customers, as prices usually run high and sometimes may include monthly subscription costs.

Streaming Services & Apps

One of the most prominent features on a Peloton is the ability to stream live exercise, but there are other ways to use streaming for exercise. Streaming services and apps include live training, pre-recorded sessions, and other types of interactive fitness activities. These services can sometimes be accessed directly from smart gym equipment (as referenced previously), another smart device, or even a computer.

An example of this is virtual reality applications specifically designed to give users a workout through motion controls or even body tracking. To use the application Supernatural, you’ll need a Meta Quest 2, as well as a monthly or yearly subscription for the game. Supernatural functions as a game where users have to physically hit flying targets, squat, and lunge to the beat of a music playlist in order to increase their accuracy score, but they are playing alongside a virtual coach who gives them encouragement and tips on their form. Supernatural has also evolved its platform to the advancements in VR technology and added on a feature where users can accurately hit targets with their knees, rather than their hand controls. Although VR headsets may not be designed specifically with workouts in mind, they can be utilized in this way.

Wearables

Like streaming services, wearables technology is evolving to be more accurate. Wearables like smartwatches have been known for their tracking of overall health. They can be used to track the progress of workouts and movement through the day. Smartwatches like the Apple Watch have the ability to detect a specific activity that is taking place, and then assess the users’ fitness goals. Wearables aren’t limited to just watches and wristbands - they can include other jewelry or even textiles. As the capabilities of wearables advance, they still conform to the basic principles of persuasion to encourage users to make decisions for their health.

Persuasive Design

Image source: Supernatural

Today’s fitness technology is created with a persuasive design that influences human behavior by impacting the user’s decision-making. There is evidence that this technology can influence behavior change in its users such as by increasing physical activity and the reduction of sedentary behavior. Due to the self-tracking of performance and feedback provided, users feel motivated to change bad habits to healthy ones. For vulnerable populations whose health is at risk due to sedentary lifestyles, this technology can encourage physical activity to incorporate into their daily life. After all, only one in five adults meets the CDC’s weekly physical activity guidelines.

Let’s take a look at how Human Factors plays a role in how we’re motivated to be active. Intrinsic motivation will be defined as the inherent satisfaction from the activity - in this case, an individual’s internal setting of goals for their fitness. Extrinsic motivation comes from an outside goal that is more than just the activity itself, such as exercising for physical appearance. Studies show that individuals use fitness technology in different ways depending on whether their motivation is internalized or externalized.

Behavioral Change & Motivation

What factors go into someone making the decision to increase physical activity? A study found that users responded more to content framed in a positive way. This feedback can include notifications or text messages with reminders about how close the user is to their fitness goals. These reminders are more frequent and can be more personalized than a real-life personal trainer would be.

When a user meets their goals, rewards can also be effective in continuing to meet their goals. This can include a congratulatory message. This is true for wearables that track activity, but it can also apply to fitness equipment and streaming apps. For example, a user may be able to set a weekly goal through the service or equipment, and then receive reminders on their phone on how they are progressing.

Motivation can be fueled by more than just congratulatory messages. Some fitness programs have actually experimented with real-life rewards. A study showed that digital incentives, such as points that can be redeemed for gift cards or digital products, being used for fitness apps did increase the engagement of users in being physically active.

However, the pressure to stay healthy from an outside force can potentially have unintended consequences for those who already suffer from a disordered body image, due to exacerbating obsessive behaviors like compulsive exercise. Another study showed that young girls who used wearable devices felt more motivated, but they also reported heightened body dissatisfaction. Designers of health and fitness technology need to be careful about the harm they can do in encouraging disordered eating and fitness activity.

Fun & Pain

Smart technology influences the psychology of exercise. We know how it can create a behavior change through smart features. There still needs to be more research into this area, but Some researchers have pointed to how it is novelty that can create enjoyment of exercise through introducing new, fun challenges into a daily routine. Boredom is detrimental when it comes to becoming absorbed in an exercise. Simple exercises such as running can often be seen as boring, but fitness technology can allow users to set goals and receive real responses through digital interfaces that creates a sense of accomplishment. A key feature of the Fitbit app is the ability to set challenges against friends. Suddenly, that boring run alone is a competition. Fitbit and similar devices reveal real numbers that a user can’t lie about. Gamifying the exercising experience ends up being like beating your best score or your friends’. Some exercise experiences can be specifically designed to be disguised as games, such as music rhythm games like Supernatural (as previously mentioned), or action games like Ring Fit Adventure for the Nintendo Switch, which incorporates physical activity through its motion controls.

A benefit of perceiving exercise as fun is that it keeps the pain away. Sweat, burning lungs, and a thumping heart can be framed as distressing. There is a psychology to reframing painful rigorous activity as a fun activity. Virtual reality workouts actually bring in the question of is it a game, or is it a workout?  VR fitness that is fun can make one forget they are working out without compromising the intensity of the exercise itself. In a study measuring the intensity of three VR fitness games, some participants worked at 80 to 90 percent of their max heart rate. A separate study that analyzed the effectiveness of VR also found that compared to exercise without a VR headset, users doing the same exercise reported less pain. Could there be a future where immersive fitness technology both encourages people to be more active while also separating them from the pain that comes with fitness?

The Human Factors Connection

Image source: MIRROR

Human factors is a critical part of designing fitness technology, as many aspects impact human psychology. Users’ fitness activity can be tracked through a wearable fitness device, smart equipment, or applications. This tracked data can include time moving or exercising, steps, GPS tracking, calories burned, heart rate and more as the capabilities of fitness technology continue to advance. Activity tracking can lead to three different categories of features: data management, exercise control, and social interaction. How a user accepts the integration of this activity tracking into their life will depend on both physical and mental factors, and this will as a result affect how the data itself influences their fitness activities.

Integration

In 2014, a review of human factors consideration of wearable devices was presented at the Annual HFES proceedings. This review identified values specifically for users of wearable devices, but many of these could apply to the ergonomics of physical exercise equipment and how they digital services into their lives.

The physical design of the device itself is one consideration. More appealing technology not only initially attracts users, but influences the chance of their continued use. The ease and logistics of integration depend first on aesthetics. Users value the fashion of a wearable device. Many smartwatches allow for interchangeable bands that can be worn even when the user isn’t specifically working out. Other values included comfort, subtlety, and ergonomics.

For home equipment, designing for these values means designing for attractiveness in the home. Exercise equipment is known for being large and obtrusive, and no one likes to try to find space in their home for a huge, ugly treadmill. On the other hand, the equipment may be more likely to be used when the owner can hop right into exercising. They do not have the barrier of getting to the gym to exercise, but out of sight, out of mind is a risk when you have a piece of equipment that is hidden in the home. The CDC says that time is one of the leading barriers to establishing regular fitness routines, and this can be hindered by equipment setup. The trendiness of smart exercise has encouraged a sleek design that is unobtrusive in the home, while also having a clear presence that functions as a reminder to be used. Fitness mirrors like MIRROR, as discussed previously, are an example of how equipment can be almost hidden in the home, but not require the same setup of something like a treadmill that is kept in a closet.

The lack of required setup is also part of the equipment’s ease of use. This may include the technology’s reliability without technical malfunction. According to one study, for wearables, battery life was a major predictor in whether a fitness tracker continued to be used. Perhaps this insight can also be reflective of Peloton’s decline, which saw technical difficulties that affected users’ safety. Although integration is one of the most human factors considerations with fitness technology, the way they influence us is also an important factor in adoption and maintained use.

Influence

The way the technology reveals the tracked data will influence engagement, particularly for extrinsically motivated users. Data collected by fitness trackers can be revealed as rewards through a notification of what they completed or how much closer they are to achieving their fitness goal.

What other factors contribute to how a user reflects on fitness data? Even when extrinsic motivational features are present, intrinsic motivation could have a larger influence through pre-existing personal beliefs about health. In one study, in a low-income neighborhood where obesity was prevalent, parents were given fitness trackers. The study found that many families didn’t reflect on this fitness data, and the depth of that reflection actually depended on beliefs that parental figures had about health and wellness.

However, data collection comes with risks. Strava, a fitness tracker app, raised security concerns when it unintentionally revealed the location of US foreign military bases after revealing a “heatmap” that showed the location of activities of its 27 million users around the world. Since military personnel had been using the app to record their jogging routes, the map revealed an identifiable outline of the bases’ layout. Although this is a more extreme example, there is an overall privacy concern regarding how users’ health and fitness data can be used, such as the identification of private medical information through the analysis of their activity tracker data.

Fitness technology has the potential to significantly impact public health, and more research needs to be done on it individually impacts fitness as the technology evolves. Human factors will continue to play a role in the engineering, design, and overall application of this technology.


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Persuasive Design

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