The Next Wellness Tech Challenge
One-size-fits-all algorithms won't suit the incoming health-conscious consumer
A few years ago, UNICEF introduced a fitness tracker with noble intentions. Called the Kid Power Band, “the world's first Wearable-for-Good™,” the device aimed to get children off the couch with a compelling pitch: “Every time you get active, you earn packets of therapeutic food called RUTF that bring severely malnourished children back to health.”
That’s right. The power to save a child lay in the hands (or more like feet) of little Timmy’s wristwatch, step-counting “points” to solve world hunger. “Save lives,” read the UNICEF website, right above a lighthearted call to “have fun” too.
Yeah. You think “bikini season” puts the pressure on? Wait until a hungry child’s future rests on your shoulders.
Needless to say, this kind of external motivation was a wee bit troubling (and the program was ultimately retired). But problematic health messaging and pressures persist, as I detailed in my LA Times feature Wellness Gone Wrong Comes For Kids, which covered everything from glitzy meditation toys to schools’ wellness courses.
In my new piece for Romper, I dig into kids' fitness trackers and health wearables. These Disney and Minions-branded gadgets promise to facilitate better fitness habits, make chores fun, analyze sleep quality, and gamify exercise. We humans love games and even more, we love rewards—in the form of bonuses, Instagram likes, and yes, digital collectible badges. Gamification can surely motivate us but as with anything that has the capability to do good, it also has the capability to do bad. Some features spur a host of potential issues, like competitive peer comparison (trying to hit 25,000 steps just to beat a classmate), compulsive exercise, and, frankly, taking the fun out of climbing a tree.
Experts also caution that reducing childhood movement simply to steps taken is reductivist, to say the least. As Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that promotes childhood resilience, told me: “Focusing on the movement alone is like focusing on how many thrusts you do in sex. Is that really what it's about?”
Moms told me of anxious kids who were staying up late to “get in all their steps.” Researchers saw kids obsessively consumed with stats, some wracked with guilt if they missed daily quotas. Even parents felt the impact:
If they’re alerted that their child didn’t get enough quality sleep, for example, they might be unnecessarily concerned: trackers only have a 78% accuracy rate, according to recent research. The wearer, meanwhile, might feel fine but is suddenly convinced they are groggy because the gadget told them they should be—or they feel significantly worse once it’s confirmed. Known as the “nocebo effect,” sleep trackers possess the ability to make us feel worse about our health.
Of course, this doesn’t happen to all and extreme cases are rare. But more importantly, trackers don't really work; keeping score and dangling prizes doesn’t lead to long-term behavior change. More likely, kids will tire of their tech toy after a few weeks, shoving it into a drawer somewhere—just like adults. Half of consumers ditch their activity tracker within several months.
Adults aren’t as impressionable or as vulnerable as kids. Most Fitbit owners I know love their trackers, but some share many of the same complaints as children. (In my book The Gospel of Wellness, I told the story of Lee, a runner who loved her Fitbit until the gadget induced fitness OCD and disordered eating. “It took all the joy away,” she told me.)
Anecdotally, I hear more adults proclaim they’re ditching their Oura ring because stats confirm what they already know and feel shitty about: lack of sleep. Gen-Zers claim they turn off gamification features—in everything from connected fitness equipment to meditation apps—because they feel like they live in a relentless video game. Friends say they get irritated when they break a “streak” due to getting sick—or like any of us, they simply “need a day off.” (Apps have yet to discover “rest days.”)
I’ve been thinking about gamification quite a bit as consumers vent about wellness tech fatigue (a topic I’m writing an article about). I’m currently reading You've Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All, a new book by Adrian Hon about how all aspects of modern life are now tracked, analyzed, and whittled down to a competition. Gamification has made its way into education, healthcare, even workplace wellness programs. Fitness, for example, is reduced to “streaks,” digital leaderboards, “achievement” badges, scores, and alerts to “take it up a notch”—soon eclipsing our initial motivation and frankly, exhausting us. We submit ourselves to the self-optimization treadmill, not even permitting our leisure time off.
Unsurprisingly, many of these tech interventions are sold to the public without the blessing—or input—of behavioral specialists. Researchers studied 50 of the most popular health and fitness apps and found that “while nearly two-thirds of the apps used game elements in their design, none incorporated several key insights from behavioral economics.” (Most design caters to “super users” already motivated to improve their health.) The Verge also previously confirmed with Apple that they didn’t formally hire behaviorists to design the Watch.
It’s beyond gamification. We’re bombarded by the constant pinging of app notifications. Heck, I sometimes can’t deal with Uber feedback requests (Rate! Tip! Donate to this cause!). All these interruptions drain and tether us to our tech, keeping us distracted, stressed, and hooked. “There’s certainly evidence suggesting the longer you spend using your phone in unproductive ways, the lower you tend to rate your wellbeing,” notes The Conversation.
A growing number of consumers, particularly Gen Z, want a reprieve from modern perfectionist pressures—one of the main reasons they download a wellness app. Constant surveillance and hyper-health vigilance (the hustle-fication of wellness culture) are at odds with the anti-productivity ethos of the new wellness generation, the same one that gave rise to “quiet quitting” and “soft life.” Then a mindfulness app tracks their session attendance? Their Mirror repeatedly pesters them to compete with strangers?
Wellness tech is still popular, no doubt, and the market only seems to grow. Amazon recently announced their $140 Halo Rise, a bedside sleep tracker with a smart alarm. (Like plenty of other wellness tech products, it comes with questionable data accuracy and less-than-convincing internal studies.) But I see a more critical shift that has people less enthused about these features as they look to reform a demanding wellness culture. Adrian Hon writes that gamification can be useful if it’s designed with your interests in mind, doesn’t exaggerate its benefits, and if you find it more enjoyable than stress-inducing. In an interview with Ann Helen Petersen, he pinpoints the problems that cloud the benefits:
“The problem is when gamification — the use of ideas from game design for non-game purposes — expands beyond the bounds we consciously set. It’s one thing to buy Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure to intentionally gamify your home exercise. It’s another to buy an Apple Watch because it’s the only smartwatch that Apple allows to be fully integrated with the iPhone, and you start getting notifications just before midnight badgering you to “close your rings” by going for a run, or to always be offering shiny achievements for increasing your calorie burn month after month. This kind of scaled-up digital gamification quietly substitutes the goals of corporations (maximising engagement and profit) in place of our own goals.”
Hon notes we likely all grew up with gamified aspects of our lives, like a parent gamifying chores or even reading books. The difference was, however, that a parent—not Apple—was in charge. A real-life human being who knew you and could tweak the system based on your needs. By engaging in big tech’s external monitoring, we surrender our own assessment. We let a one-size-fits-all algorithm judge, control, and optimize our actions, motivation, and worth.
The next iteration of wellness tech will need to be more thoughtful, less disruptive, and better individualized, but without too much tweaking input (because manually adjusting your gadgets all the time is annoying). I don’t know if it’s possible to mass produce a product tailored to an individual’s unique health needs, but whoever can crack the code on that will win the shifting wellness consumer.
Romper: Should You Buy Your Kids a Fitness Tracker?
In other news:
I am quoted in Well+Good’s annual trends report. And Well+Good profiled my book twice this season:
Why This Wellness Journalist Wants You To Be More Skeptical of Health-Promoting Products
Hooked on Wellness: Is Our Obsession With Health Becoming Unhealthy?
If you’re traveling for New Year’s and need to kill time, might I recommend one of many podcasts I’ve recorded? Below are a few favorites, including Wellness: Fact Vs. Fiction and Conspirituality:
—Rina Raphael, author of The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care
News & Trends:
The top Google wellness searches of 2022: “How to handle stress,” journaling, and “exercising for mental health” made the cut. (CNN)
Psychedelics as … workplace perk? Boston-based startup Enthea hopes to get employers interested in psychedelic-assisted therapy. (STAT News)
Amazon courts Gen Z wellness devotees: Amazon partners with Planet Fitness to promote its Halo tracker via TikTok challenges. (Latana)
Hydrow releases connected rower in Pantone color of the year: As consumers look for big purchases to reflect their aesthetics, boring gray equipment won’t cut it anymore. I predict we’ll see more fashionable wellness tech partnerships. (Hydrow)
Netflix jumps into fitness content: Starting tomorrow, Netflix will stream 45 Nike Training Club workout classes, offering yoga, HIIT, strength, and more. (Techcrunch)
Expect a body care boom? Now that skincare is overly saturated, it’s time to move on to the other 90% of our skin. The category has been steadily growing for the past couple of years and is set to “explode” in 2023. (Glossy)
New pregnancy skincare line Orimii: I see more and more life events-focused skincare brands, spanning menopause, pregnancy, etc. Previously, I profiled Blume, crafted specifically for puberty. (Dieline)
Sephora’s dubious class-action lawsuit could be just what the industry needs: A class-action complaint requesting a jury trial was filed against Sephora over its “clean beauty” program. I’ve written at length about the problematic and confusing “clean” beauty industry, and seeing how consumers are increasingly losing interest, it might be time for retailers to do the same. (BeautyMatters)
Nearly half of consumers prize community in wellness experiences: Men are more likely to say this than women via a Mindbody/Classpass survey of 17,000 Americans. (MindBody)
“Spiritual” wellness drinks? It looks like the spiritual-but-not-religious sector has joined forces with the booming wellness beverage space. Behold, Palo Santo water and “spiritually uplifting” adaptogen tonics. (Snaxshot)
Pentagon tackles wellness initiatives: The Defense Dept. plans to hire 2,000 healthcare professionals to address a wide range of health concerns, including suicide prevention, in a “first of its kind” program. (HealthLeaders)
“Loneliness robot” ElliQ gets a 2.0 makeover: I profiled this sleek AI companion for the elderly in Fast Company. Now the latest iteration comes with new caregiving features, including “travel experiences” and museum tours. (FierceHealthcare)
Related: Will Robots Ever Be Better Caretakers than Humans?
The booming at-home testing kit sector: There are a ton of new spit-and-swab testing kits, with more en route. Is that a good thing? (Neo Life)
The pandemic has left people less extroverted and agreeable: "We know that our personalities can shift across a lifetime, but usually it happens slowly. A new survey suggests the pandemic sped things up and has made people more disagreeable.” (New Scientist)
The rise of the athlete-founded brand: More athletes are launching their very own footwear and apparel lines, often targeting specific fitness communities. Example: Olympian Allyson Felix’s shoe line for women. (Glossy)
The weighted blanket stuffed animal going viral: Hugimals lit up TikTok with its soft and heavy plush elephant. I actually received a complimentary Hugimal earlier this fall and every child who has come to my home has been absolutely enchanted by “heavy bear.” (TikTok)
‘Out of control’: Dozens of telehealth startups sent sensitive health information to big tech
An investigation of 50 direct-to-consumer telehealth companies found that quick, online access to medications often comes with a hidden cost: These websites were leaking the medical information they collected to the world’s largest advertising platforms. (STAT & The Markup)
To Do: Groceries, Soccer Carpool, Divine Transcendence
Sara Petersen interviewed me about The Gospel of Wellness, how becoming perfectly calm and centered became another thing on moms’ to-do list, and how women are trying to keep up with commodified wellness:
“And while capitalist consumerism has urged moms to buy shit to soothe our despair, our ennui, and our loneliness since time immemorial, now we also are incessantly bombarded by the noise of the wellness and self-care industries which (like their BFF capitalism) also want us to spend copious amounts of money. But they want us to spend that money for ourselves; for our inner peace, for our probiotic flora, for our spiritual equilibrium, for our gut health, for our inner children, for our hip-flexor flexibility, for our divine womb voices.” (In Pursuit of Clean Countertops)
Is More Childhood Independence the Answer to the Youth Mental Health Crisis?
College courses like “Adulting 101” are becoming more common as universities attempt to help students cope with everyday life. But it could be that the problems of “adulting” begin long before—in childhood—and potentially ties back to a lack of independence and new experiences (often due to overprotective parenting). This issue seems particularly US-centric as students from other countries show far more emotional maturity and resilience. (KQED)
The Incoherence and Cruelty of Mental Illness as Meme
Freddie deBoer argues that our insta-therapy culture has all the patience in the world for mentally ill people provided their disorders are tolerable, quirky, or manageable (see: ADHD TikTok). But that patience and understanding disappear as soon as it comes to the more severe, ugly, and terrifying disorders—some of which come with paranoia (and can lead to crazy conspiracy theories.) “For years now, the severely ill have been pushed further and further into the backseat of the public discourse about mental illness. With the new insistence that mentally ill people never do anything really bad, that process is complete; those who suffer the least from mental illness now blot out the sun.” (Freddie deBoer)
Treating Long Covid Is Rife With Guesswork
In the wake of the pandemic, dozens of specialized clinics are attempting to address Long Covid symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, and depression. But Long Covid is still loosely defined and there is no standard treatment protocol as research is ongoing: “Tension is building in the medical community over what appears to be a grab-bag approach in treating long Covid ahead of big clinical trials.” (Undark)