physical activity trackersLast year, online media had a field day when a survey showed that one third of respondents who owned a “wearable” activity tracker stopped using their device within six months. The firm that conducted the survey referred to this as “the dirty secret of wearables.” But it’s premature to judge this disengagement rate, and there’s no secret to keep. Sixty-six percent adherence for wearables after six months may, in fact, be something to celebrate.

Is It Time to Disengage from Disengagement Rates?

We haven’t identified universally accepted goals for activity trackers (by “trackers,” we’re talking here about devices like Fitbits, Jawbone Ups, and the like). Is the purpose to increase activity? To lose weight? To (perish the thought) have fun? Without goals, there’s little we can say about effectiveness or the significance of disengagement rates.

The assumption behind the negative publicity for disengagement rates implies that users should wear their trackers indefinitely. But…Says who? Many consumers wearing a tracker for the first time will see, within a few days, that they aren’t as active as they thought. This may be a first step to modifying behavior, even if they ultimately rely on non-tracker strategies to make changes, and even if those strategies take place at a later date.

Business Insider writer Erin Brodwin recently published an article called, I Tried Fitbit for a Month, and Taking It Off Was the Best Decision I’ve Made. Judging from the title, we might think that Brodwin’s story is a testimonial to the transience of tracker engagement (or that she needs to make better decisions in her life). And it may be. But this observation she makes near the end of the piece may exemplify unexamined potential of wearables:

I still do some of the healthier things I learned to do with my Fitbit, like taking the stairs at work and going for a walk when I take a phone call.

In Brodwin’s case, sustainability of her Fitbit use would have been the wrong metric if her goal was to increase physical activity.

Do One Third of Users Disengage with Wearables after Six Months? Or Do Two Thirds Continue?

What benchmark are we using to judge sustainability of engagement with wearables? Do we compare it to the 20% of patients that drop out of psychotherapy early? Or to the attrition rate for Crossfit, physical therapy, yoga, walking groups, Weight Watchers, or gym attendance? What about mindfulness, our panacea du jour? What percentage of mindfulness practitioners sustain their efforts for more than six months?

I don’t have credible citations for disengagement rates on any of these potential benchmarks, because hardly anyone’s even asking the question. But, by most accounts, a 66% adherence rate after six months compares favorably to…well, just about anything that requires effort.

Previous research on pedometers and early-day accelerometer devices has shown they can be useful tools for increasing physical activity…when they’re integrated with a sound behavioral program. And this was the optimistic conclusion of the “dirty secret” survey — that use of wearables can be sustainable when integrated with behavioral approaches.

Through my job, I’ve overseen the distribution of thousands of pedometers and hundreds of modern tracking devices to people engaged in top-tier behavioral programs lasting several weeks, often offered periodically throughout the year. The pedometer users, I did indeed find, are usually eager to abandon their device in the junk drawer after a program ended. But those who stop wearing their pedometer after eight weeks tend to be perfectly happy to resume wearing it when the next program rolls around. And I’ve seen unpublished data showing that the effects of this intermittent participation on activity levels is sustainable for more than a year. Using it or not using it for the first six months of ownership doesn’t seem essential.

Our wearable technology is ahead of our research. Do we know what consumers expect from trackers? Not everyone wearing a tracker wants to change. Some may be quantified-self devotees. Some enjoy a tracker as an expensive toy.

As for me: I need to have an activity tracking device because I’m in the business, and I’m extra motivated to continue so that I can contribute my data as a subject in the Heart Study (which, I hope, may ultimately resolve some of our questions about wearables). If my job was unrelated, I doubt I’d pony up the bucks for a glorified pedometer.

Calorie-counting apps have come under similar criticism, but there’s no arguing that expectations of these apps are more clearly defined. Consumers come to these apps to lose weight, though research shows that attrition is high and that the apps, perhaps like wearables, are useful as a measurement tool and not a standalone strategy.

I use MyFitnessPal to track calories for 3 to 4 weeks each year. In the first three weeks I used it, I suffered the revelation that I consumed more daily calories in snacks than I did in meals. While I caution that n=1 — my experience may be irrelevant to anyone else’s — approximately three weeks was all it took to trigger a lasting change in my eating patterns. I consider that a win and, as of this moment, it’s no secret.

[This post was originally published on on May 18, 2015]