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Dossier: Changing habits

If you don’t have a goal, gadgets won’t help.

Today it seems we can’t do anything without digital support in the form of apps, watches or fitness trackers, for example. Real motivators or just fashion accessories? Motivation expert Romana Feldmann explains.

Ms Feldmann, are pulse monitors, GPS watches and activity trackers good motivators to encourage people to do more sport?

The most important thing to consider is why you’re exercising. Are you doing it to socialise, relax and unwind or keep fit? Or are you trying to improve your performance through planned, varied training? There are many reasons why people choose to exercise. Various technical gadgets can be useful – it depends on what your goal is. One thing is certain: if you don’t have a goal, even the fanciest gadget will end up at the bottom of a drawer.

Are we witnessing a fundamental shift in the way we exercise with the emergence of pulse monitors, GPS watches, activity trackers, etc.?  

Digitalisation reflects the spirit of the times and also impacts on sport and leisure. However, I’m not aware of any study which provides evidence of a link between technical gadgets and the way we exercise.
I think the impact on sport has more to do with today’s performance-oriented society than technological developments. It’s simply normal to work hard and play hard.

«However, I’m not aware of any study which provides evidence of a link between technical gadgets and the way we exercise.»

Who do these technical gadgets tend to appeal to?

The technical support that these gadgets offer tends to appeal more to endurance athletes than team athletes. My personal observations have shown that these devices are mostly used by people already doing intense exercise or sport.

Can these gadgets be used to encourage inactive people to make a lasting change to their exercise habits?

Technology will never overcome a lack of will power – you have to really want to do it. Devices such as activity trackers are extremely trendy at the moment and may give people the incentive to change their behaviour. But someone who barely exercises is hardly going to make a lasting change to their exercise regime merely because they own a gadget. It has been said that a change in behaviour, such as exercising regularly, must be sustained for a period of at least three months if there is to be any hope of it lasting. A gadget can act as a good incentive, but it doesn’t guarantee a change to exercise habits in the long term. 

“‘Real life’ contacts are still more effective than support through a digital community.”

So what does motivate people to exercise more?

It’s important to set realistic goals and milestones. A certain amount of social pressure from friends and colleagues – the online community – can also encourage people to stick at it. “Real life” contacts are still more effective than support through a digital community. You’re unlikely to be reprimanded if you forget to post a sporting milestone on an online platform, but if you arrange a time to go jogging and don’t turn up, your fellow joggers may have a bone to pick with you.

What are the main advantages of technical gadgets?

The ability to systematically document your performance and improve the quality of your training is certainly beneficial. Top athletes wouldn’t even contemplate training without this technology nowadays.

Are there any disadvantages?

The fact that everything can be measured down to the tiniest detail can cause problems if you fixate on your data and feel constant pressure to outperform yourself and others. You have to be careful that you don’t end up overexerting yourself – a healthy and balanced approach is key. Perfectionists in particular tend to overexert themselves and put themselves under enormous psychological pressure. In extreme cases this can lead to an unhealthy addiction to exercise. In addition to physical and psychological symptoms, there’s also the danger of becoming socially isolated because sport and achievement are suddenly more important than everything else and the social environment is neglected.

Should we exercise occasionally without gadgets?

There are certainly a lot of recreational athletes out and about with GPS watches who don’t look at them once during training. They simply document their performance afterwards. If you’re fixated on your performance and times and constantly scrutinising your data whilst exercising, you should leave the device at home from time to time. This allows you to focus entirely on your body and its individual movements. You become more aware of yourself and your environment and sense whether you’re actually enjoying what you’re doing. The focus is on the “here and now” and the activity itself rather than the result.