Exercise and technology

Technology is a two-edged sword: because of it, we either sit too much or become more active from embracing it. Are you on “the right side” of the exercise/technology equation?

HealthySteps to Wellness explores the technology divide now impacting our population’s physical health. Read on to determine where you stand and where you could go, with new technologies, to improve — rather than harm — your physical health.

When it comes to physical activity, is technology more of a help or a hindrance?

The answer depends on what technology you are talking about and how it is being used.

On the one hand, computer use can pose a hindrance to getting enough physical activity because it encourages prolonged sitting. The risk of physical inactivity is well communicated by the World Health Organization and many other major health organizations.1 Physical inactivity and poor diet are the leading modifiable causes of death and human disease globally — increasing the risk of developing chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancers, depression and anxiety.

On the other hand, technology can be helpful in increasing physical activity. Many online programs and classes, including some HealthySteps to Wellness offerings (such as Kurbo and Omada), incorporate strategies for increasing physical activity in their comprehensive approach to decreasing chronic health conditions. Programs that include physical activity trackers have also been effective in getting people to increase their physical activity each day. Technology is helpful if it is being used to educate and motivate someone to increase physical activity and change unhealthy behaviors.

How can we maximize the benefits of technology while minimizing the potential for harm?

To maximize the benefits, we have to consider the technology that we choose to increase physical activity.

There are a daunting number (approximately 423) of devices that track physical activity, and 132 different companies that make them. The five brands used most often are Fitbit, Garmin, Misfit, Apple and Polar. There are simple devices that just track the number of steps per day, and there are some that are robust and offer more of a program (with features such as goal setting and progress updates). There are even activity trackers that are better for swimmers versus those that track when your feet hit the ground while walking or running.

There are many different display options on these devices. Do you need a larger display? Do you need it to track heart rate, or offer alerts for specific heart rate or training ranges? Your choice may depend upon what motivates you to be more physically active: are you motivated by data, or are you the type of person that doesn’t need to know the specifics (except for whether or not you are on track overall)?

To minimize the harm of technology, don’t let the technology control you by keeping you sitting for long periods of time. Use it to your advantage. Program apps on your computer or phone to remind you to stand up or move more. Also, consider using a sit/stand desk or a cycle desk to allow you to move more.

Lately, reports have surfaced questioning the accuracy of physical activity trackers.
Are these devices reliable?

Compared with activity trackers used in research, consumer-wearable activity trackers measure up pretty well. Numerous research studies have shown that the FitBit One and Jawbone can be considered valid devices for measuring physical activity. While new devices are coming out every year, Fitbit, Garmin, Misfit, Apple and Polar are used most often in research projects and could therefore be considered “gold standards.”

As we become more digitally oriented, are the guidelines for physical activity changing?

The two coincide. Just recently (November 2018), the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion released the second edition of Physical Activity Guidelines for AmericansThese are the first new guidelines issued by the government since the initial release of activity recommendations in 2008, and they are the culmination of a nearly two year process in which an advisory team examined a host of new research around physical activity and its connection to overall health. As in previous years, the guidelines recommend that adults get 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity and muscle strengthening activities twice a week. But, now, the guidelines count all activity  rather than only the activity that is done in 10-minute bouts.

There is also new knowledge that a single bout of physical activity has immediate health benefits, and that being physically active has more long-term benefits and manages more chronic health conditions than were previously known.

A well-rounded physical fitness program should also include stretching for flexibility and balance exercises for older adults.

What do you see as the future of physical activity? How will technology change the way we work out in the next 20 years?

The digital world is here to stay and the key to the future of physical activity is really about being connected. There are a few programs at the forefront of virtually technology; some allow you to feel that you are taking a bike ride in Paris while you are actually in an indoor cycling studio. There are programs that allow people to engage with others — like Peloton, an indoor bicycle with technology that connects you with others from around the world doing the same workout. There are some fitness centers that offer streaming classes, allowing people to engage from wherever they are even though the class is happening at the club.

There are also future developments in physical activity not related to technology, but worth mentioning. There are health clubs that offer fitness programs that partner with health plans. For example, in some states the YMCA couples with Medicare to offer a prediabetes class for their members over 65. The “PHIT Act” (Personal Health Investment Today Act) is proposed legislation that, if passed, would allow for the use of “flex spending money” on items and services related to increasing physical activity — such as activity trackers and gym memberships. (In 2018, the PHIT Act passed the House of Representatives and is now on its way to the Senate.)

Can technology affect the way we think about physical activity? Can it affect our motivation?

Definitely. Many hospital employees who have participated in CaféWell, our wellness portal, have found it improved their motivation around physical activity, nutrition, and/or sleep, which contributed to improving health over time. Technology-centered activity thus can increase our level of engagement, which in turn positively impacts our overall physical health.

By Mia Primeau and Jerrie Thurman
January 2019

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of the Surgeon General, American Medical Association, Healthy People 2020 and other organizations have reported on the health risks relating to physical inactivity.