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Resolutions, Exercise Trackers & Operant Conditioning

Resolutions, Exercise Trackers & Operant Conditioning“… To get in shape” is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions, and arguably the one most often broken.

For some, the solution may lie in the new wave of exercise trackers. Wristbands and other gadgets rely on operant conditioning — the potential for feedback from the environment to affect desired (or undesired) behavior.

Depending on the gadget, trackers provide can provide personalized information about information including: the number of steps taken per day (which is then converted into miles traversed or calories burned); total calories consumed; and the length and depth of nightly sleep. Some of these trackers also will provide daily, weekly, or monthly trends.

The idea is that making people aware of their daily activity and caloric intake will motivate them to make better choices and achieve health-related goals.

This premise is nothing new: The old-school, low-tech versions of these trackers are the pencil and paper food diaries and exercise logs. For some people, writing down their eating and exercise behaviors can be the key to making healthy changes. One of the challenges inherent in the diary approach, however, is getting people actually to write things down. Unfortunately, most techies — and pretty much everyone under 40 — are unlikely to carry around small pocket notebooks. And no “feedback” from the diary means no reinforcement for positive behaviors. It also means one can remain blissfully unaware of one’s degree of sloth or gluttony.

Ideally, I would like to exercise on five or more days per week. Like most, however, life has frequently gotten in the way, and most weeks I am lucky to engage in “formal” exercise two to three times per week at most. Yet, I thought there were several reasons for me not to try one of these toys.

First, I am no techie. I had never even sent a text before 2005. Second (and this may surprise some…), I worked as a personal trainer during college, and later to supplement my income while at my first research job. I also have a degree in public health. So I have a good idea of what I should be doing, even when I am not doing it. Third, I am a health psychologist, and know a thing or two about barriers to and motivators of behavior change.

Yet, despite better-than-average health habits, I’m not immune to second helpings, giant lattes, or wanting to sleep in. So when two of my tech-savvy friends raved about the power of the bands, I was intrigued.

“This thing is fantastic!” my friend Dave enthused. “You know my brother – the one who’s been kind of blobby since he got married – like 15 years ago? Well, we were sitting around after Christmas dinner, and he logged his meals for the day. The thing told him he needed to burn 300 more calories to make his goal.”

“And?” I waited expectantly.

“He actually got off the couch and played one of those fitness video games with my niece for about 45 minutes. I nearly fell over. He’s been walking every day for the past week. Alan and I are going to the mall today to get these for ourselves.”

With that, I was sold. I bummed a ride with them to the mall and bought a band that tracks exercise, caloric intake, and sleep, comforted by the store’s 10-day return policy.

It’s been three-and-a-half weeks now since I got the band, and by some miracle (otherwise known as operant conditioning), I have worn it daily, including during sleep. At the end of each day I check to see how many steps I’ve taken. My daily goal has been to achieve the 10,000 steps recommended by the World Health Organization.

Each evening, I sync the band with my phone and an app tells me how I’ve done. I am excited to say that I have met or exceeded my activity goal on all but two days, which represents a marked increase for me. Admittedly, I have been inconsistent with regard to logging my sleep, but am more aware of aiming for (if not always meeting) the recommended 8 hours. I have only logged my meals once, but I wasn’t really aiming to make huge changes on this front anyway.

The bottom line is that the activity trackers utilize a time-tested psychological approach for enhancing motivation and increasing the likelihood of behavior change in a way that will especially appeal to gadget freaks, those unlikely to carry around a notepad, and those who enjoy the ability to see their progress over time. It’s operant conditioning with a tech-savvy twist.

Resolutions, Exercise Trackers & Operant Conditioning

Traci Stein, PhD, MPH

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APA Reference
Stein, T. (2018). Resolutions, Exercise Trackers & Operant Conditioning. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Jan 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.