Study: The impact of tracking technology on physical activity in an online running community

Study: The impact of tracking technology on physical activity in an online running community

Background to the Issue and Problem

Activity tracking technology (ATT) is relatively new in the fitness market and yet is fast becoming a part of everyday life. Whilst fast-moving technological advances and competitive pricing have allowed many to start using tracking technology it is not yet understood whether usage of this technology has a positive or negative impact on the users’ activity levels.


In addition, little is understood regarding the following;

  • The reasons one particular tracking method is chosen over another
  • Whether the use of the device/method promotes activity or not
  • If technical failures or difficulty of use impacts negatively on activity levels
  • The length of time the technology is used for – i.e. continued use over an extended period of time or whether it is discarded when interest wanes

Further study is needed to understand why ATT is adopted, what factors steer a decision for one particular type of ATT (GPS Watch/Pedometer/Smartphone application/Website) over another, and, perhaps the most important factor of this research, whether the reliability and ease of use of the ATT negatively impacts the users’ activity levels and motivation.


Justification for the Research

Literature including peer reviewed papers written by the academic community on the subject of using ATT to promote physical activity is limited. The majority of peer reviewed research focuses on medical applications of ATT, in particular for interventions and rehabilitation, and not common use by an ever-growing fitness focussed society. This reaffirms the stance that more research is needed in this growing field. As a result, this study will add to the body of knowledge available and be of use to a wide audience with an interest in the use of ATTs including, but not limited to:

Online fitness communities

Online fitness communities like UKRUNCHAT use ATT as a method of attracting new members (via running activity based competitions and challenges), and by creating more of a community feel (including the concept of teams and healthy competition between those teams, effectively gamification). This study will assist online fitness communities to grow in number and keep engaged with existing members through the use of ATT.

Health insurance providers that promote healthy living via evidence based rewards

This study will provide data and analytics that can be used to inform the health and fitness rewards programmes and better target specific groups in their campaigns. The study will give insight as to why people take up using ATT, how they use it, and why they stop. The study will also provide data on the demographics of those who use ATT and other aspects of those who do and do not use ATT, such as number of years running (maturity), type of runner (competitive vs participant) and how they run.

Fitness industry specialists including but not limited to personal trainers, sports psychologists, physiotherapists and GPs

The study will show whether the use of ATT has an impact on those who use them. This can provide rationale for those concerned with client/patient activity levels to prescribe ATT devices (e.g. a Fitness band such as FitBit) to patients requiring a medical intervention. It can also be used as evidence by personal trainers to better ensure their clients follow planned fitness regimes.

Fitness based social networking website developers and Smartphone application developers

The outcomes of the study can be used by the providers of ATT in their own research and development of further ATT and enhancement to their existing platforms.

The practical problem/issue

ATT can be classified as a computer system, device or application that is designed to change a person’s attitude or behaviour (Fogg, 2003). These technologies measure physical activity (and sometimes other health and behavior indicators such as heart rate) and interface with a computer or mobile app to provide extensive feedback tools (Lyons et al, 2014)


The primary focus of research to date in the area of ATT usage and the resulting change in behaviour, has been on medical applications such as post-heart attack rehabilitation or weight loss interventions at a community level.

According to Price Waterhouse Cooper (Pwc) in their market facing paper entitled The Wearing Life 2.0 Connected Living in A Wearable World (Bothan and Lieberman, 2016) 45% of people surveyed owned a fitness band of one type or another, 27% owned smartwatches and 57% were excited about the everyday use of wearable technology, an increase of 16% from 2014.  This study indicates that more people are making use of ATTs for non-medical related purposes and highlights the need for further investigation to better understand the impact of everyday use of ATTs on those who use them.

How am I doing?

The study has been ongoing since the Spring and is going very well. To date the all-important literature review has been completed and extended and completed again thrice, and that was quite tough. Why? The obvious really, not much has been written about ATT in the academic community. Sure, there are dozens of articles in fitness magazines and newspapers, as well as marketing bunf from the manufacturers but no peer reviewed papers. There have been a lot written on the use of ATT in medical situations, such as using trackers to monitor fitness in post heart attack patients, diabetics, as well as community wide anti-obesity programs. But I do not need to look at this from a medical point of view, my study looks at whether ATT has an impact on physical activity in online running communities, such as #UKRUNCHAT.

So literature review done a pilot study of the survey to be sent out to the whole community was created on SurveyMonkey. This was sent out to two dozen members of the community in a targeted DM or email and I received 22 responses that I could use to shape the final study, as well as very useful feedback. I am very grateful for the help and it made the final study all the better.

The final study is in place now and can be filled in here. At the time of writing this I have had 423 responses in just over a week and a half. This is pretty amazing given the nature of the study and the target sample. Of 43,000+ followers of UKRUNCHAT about 30,0000 are real people, rather than companies, bots and other groups. Of that 30,000 over 2,000 interact on a weekly basis and roughly 1,200 to 1,500 are in constant engagement (like me). So I already have over a third of the active membership, and have 5 weeks of the survey left (as I am leaving it open until the end of September).

If you have not completed it yet, please do, it will make a difference. And thanks again.

What is the data showing me at the moment?

It is quite interesting really and there are definite patterns forming. The highlights at this stage are:

  • 44% of the sample is in their 30s
  • 57% is female so I guess #THISGIRLCAN for sure
  • 65% have been running for less than 5 years
  • 39% are members of running clubs
  • 55% run less than 4 times a week
  • 48% run between 10 and 20 miles. So as a profile of those above I could say a small majority are lady runners, who have been running less that 5 years, run 3 times a week, are therefore training for (perhaps) one marathon a year, are running alone, or not part of a club and probably run about 10K each time they lace up.
  • 96% use ATT – now this is interesting to me, a majority do. It means those who do not and filled in the survey will have probably stopped at this point and will make up the 18 DNFs
  • 77% use Garmin
  • 30% chose this based on personal recommendation rather than looking at the features
  • 79% cite the ease of use of what they like about their device
  • 100% of people track distance
  • 79% use ATT to track simple activity
  • 57% say that reliability in terms of battery life and GPS connectivity is the most important feature, which suggests that they are running long enough for the battery to fail, or in places where GPS has issues.
  • 77% upload their activity to websites
  • 60% share this data with others, e.g. through Strava or Nike+ or Garmin Connect
  • 77% believe the most important thing they use their ATT for is tracking their long term progress
  • Only 33% use fitness rewards partners such as Running Heroes, Vitality, Fitness Rewards or Bounts.
  • And only 21% feel motivated to exercise more for rewards. I do tell of seeing people on the tube shaking their device to get their steps up for their rewards.
  • 75% say that cost is the overriding factor when buying ATT. And having looked at the Ambit and Fenix recently I can see why.


  • 66% stated that their current ATT failed only rarely. This suggests that there are technical flaws, and we have all experienced them. I stopped using Nike+ as one just died and another the battery would last 45 mins. And all that after years of fighting for GPS connectivity, or it not connecting due to constant software updates. I much prefer my Garmin for these purposes, but miss the ease of use and stats within the Nike+ website.

and now the crux of the matter

  • 40% of those that responded said that failures in their ATT, including battery dying, poor GPS, poor accuracy, affected their motivation but… and this is really interesting
  • Only 8% said that those failures stopped them from running

So at this early stage the patterns are quite interesting. Initially I hypothesized that runners of a certain maturity, or nature, say those that have run for 15 years, or those who run to win a race, are not so tied to their ATT. I would have guessed that those who have been running for 15 have only been using ATT for the last 5 as a maximum and therefore already had habits of their own that ATT does not affect. And for those who win, the stats are less important as it is about race day success.

I would  have said that new runners, so those who have been running for less that 3 years, who are not particularly competitive, and are just running to finish, participants if you like (like me), need the ATT stats to show improvement. As they are not likely to win a race, and may not always get PBs at every race, they need other tracked stats to keep them motivated to go on.

But the survey is already disproving this theory. Even though almost half of you are demotivated by the technical failures of your ATT, only a small fraction are so demotivated that they do not run. That is cool. You sound like my kind of running community.

Anyway, the study is ongoing, if you have not filled it in as yet please do. I have a smaller survey out to subject matter experts (SMEs), and have already interviewed the Head of Research and Development at Vitality, as well as received answers from Running Heroes and Fitness Rewards, thanks to all that have helped and will gladly share the study when it is published in February.

Thanks again


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Stefano Michelini says:

    I use TomTom multi sports watch to track my running and swimming stats. I can then analyse my performance and look for ways to improve. I’m a social runner who participates in 5k, 10k & 1/2 marathon running events. I’m looking to run the VLM in 2017 and participate in an Ironman 70.3 too. This device is important to my progression. If I’m out running naked i have no way of telling if I’m becoming faster on hill sections etc. I guess the technology has a positive impact. I can’t afford a personal coach so this will need to suffice!


    1. runnersknees says:

      Thank you for the info, Stefano.I am vert much the same with my marathon and ultra marathon running. I do feel naked without it too. The impact can be positive and negative though. How do you feel when your device fail? E.g. if the battery dies on a long run or if it cannot connect to GPS. Please fill the survey in if you get 5 mins too. Thanks RK.


  2. Ben says:

    Nice to see a summary of your results so far. My tracking devices have only really failed twice – once I just couldn’t get GPS at the start of a race (but clearly raced anyway) and the other time it froze up during repeats. That time I did contemplate just stopping, but I has to get hone anyway, so I added it manually later. It was bloody annoying though!


    1. runnersknees says:

      My Nike+ battery was fully charged when I flew to Dublin for the Rock n Roll races. Next day in the starting pens it died. TBH I ran the same pace as always but if I know I am close to a PB when I look at my watch I will push myself harder.


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