Fitness trackers continue to be a hot ticket item for adults looking to lose weight and get in shape, and the trend is here to stay. In fact, the wearables market will grow 35 percent over the next five years, a recent report by BI Intelligence found.
And just like smartphones and tablets geared for kids, companies like X-Doria, GeoPalz and LeapFrog now offer activity trackers for children as young as 4.
A motivation boost
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than 3 in 10 high school students are physically active for at least 60 minutes every day. With more than a third of children who are overweight or obese, fitness trackers might be another creative solution to get Generation Z moving.
The major benefit of using a fitness tracker is motivation. By setting goals, getting feedback and being rewarded, kids are encouraged to do more, whether it’s getting off the couch or improving their performance on the field.
Steve Ettinger, a nationally recognized kids fitness expert and spokesperson for Let’s Play, says when kids are measured by how well they do and know how to improve, they’re given an incentive to work harder.
“If you time a child to do something, they’re way more motivated than if you ask them to do it fast as they can,” he said.
Trackers for young children make a game of fitness, using characters to motivate and measuring play instead of steps or distance.
Devices geared for older children and high school athletes can help teens track the amount of weight they lift, repetitions, time, and frequency. They can make adjustments to their routines, challenge family members and friends, and share their stats on social media.
Although researchers are in the early stages of studying the effectiveness of fitness trackers, the outlook looks promising. In fact, according to a study in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, 46 percent of children who used the Polar Active fitness tracker got at least an hour of moderate-to-physical activity, burned 1,590 calories, and took 19,000 steps a day.
Experts agree, fitness trackers are not necessary or even appropriate for every child. For example, kids who are already highly motivated and active, or those that are focused more on the love of the game and less on analytics, don’t need it, said Dr. Chuck Pelitera, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.
“They can be part of the solution for some kids,” said Dr. Jason A. Mendoza, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and an investigator at the Seattle Children's Research Institute.
Mendoza is working on an ongoing study to determine if teens are interested in wearing the Fitbit Flex and using Facebook to earn badges for their progress.
For children who need extra motivation to move more, slapping a fitness tracker on them isn’t enough to get them active. They’ll need more support from their family, friends, a physician, role model, an after-school club or sports team, Mendoza said.
Work hard, play hard
Kids have an innate interesting in playing, exploring and moving, but have fewer opportunities to do so. In fact, according to a survey from Let’s Play, only 26 percent of parents say their child plays every day.
Although kids need both planned, structured activities and time for free play, encouraging them to use a fitness tracker and making sure they hit a certain number could take the fun right out of it, experts say.
“If you’re forcing them to monitor their progress every time and keep track of what they’ve been doing in their workouts, they’re going to get discouraged and not do it,” Pelitera said. “We just want to get them to do something and not monitor so much what it is.”
If kids do buy into the technology, parents should help their children set realistic goals and raise the bar in small increments. If their goals are too lofty, they could get discouraged, Mendoza said.
Although fitness trackers can motivate kids when they’re young, ensuring that they’ll always make fitness a priority throughout their lives is a bigger challenge.
“We need to try to figure out can we really change behavior and sustain that change in the long term,” Mendoza said.