I wear a fitness tracker that monitors how many steps I take each day. Ask me why, and I’ll tell you I’m not quite sure. Push me, and I’ll say it’s fun. It sort of appeals to my sense of achievement to know if I hit my Fitbit-suggested target every day of 10,000 steps.
My dichotomous enjoyment/ambivalence isn’t unusual. The companies making the trackers claim that counting your steps leads to better health. But as a user the evidence feels shaky. Stacey Burr, vice-president of wearable sports electronics for the German sneaker maker Adidas, makes a powerful argument that such nitpicking misses the point. How to use the collected information is “the next frontier,” she says. “Right now it’s about how to get people moving more and to stay with it.”
The data backs up Burr’s assertion. Just 1% of the U.S. population engages in regular vigorous exercise, she says. Seventy percent is “inactive,” a description that applies to an appallingly high percentage of children. View fitness trackers from that perspective, and the focus shifts from ‘what does this information mean?’ to ‘just getting inactive people moving is a good thing.’
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Burr, a founder of a sensor-based clothing business called Textronix that Adidas bought, spoke Wednesday at a lunch panel on “The Exercise Cure: The High-Tech Science of Fitness” at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego. She says a huge opportunity for combating childhood obesity is teaching kids to be active. School systems have begun experimenting with heart-rate monitors, for example, that kids wear during gym class. Grades are based on minutes of elevated heart-rate activity, and baseline measurements can shift for children of different athletic abilities. Burr says educators have found correlations between more activity and better attendance, behavior, and academic achievement.
Maybe this fitness-tracker thing really is about more than fun.