Three rings. One goal. – How fitness trackers ask us to act.

Monday evening 6:34 p.m., 21 degrees, mostly sunny. The last 10 … 5 more …, 3, 2, 1, a jingle, over. The lungs burn, thighs tremble, the look at the clock, pulse 174, training time 35 minutes, still out of breath, I swipe the display on my fitness bracelet to the right and declare the training finished. The summary of my training, a quick check of my data, appears very good on the display. I click on “done” and the colorful rings “You have achieved your daily activity goals! “. Should fulfilled. A feeling of satisfaction spreads, joy, satisfaction. I pack my things and leave the stadium.

Many self-trackers experience situations like this: inside every day, because it has long been the practice of Self-Trackings no longer just performance monitoring for top athletes. The measurement and recording of all conceivable data about ourselves, be it the duration and quality of our sleep, the regularity of the female cycle, the calories eaten or the distance traveled, is an integral part of everyday life for many people (cf. Duttweiler / Passoth 2016 : 10). With all sorts of gadgets, apps and technologies, it is now easy to record and save body-related data and share it on social networks for anyone who wants to. In the fitness industry in particular, new models of so-called fitness trackers appear almost every month – watches or bracelets with sensors that record all data relating to fitness and health and are intended to sensitize and motivate consumers for a conscious, healthy lifestyle.

In the context of my research, the question was investigated how the practices of self-tracking using digital fitness watches affect their users and what actions – or Affordanzen – brought about by the fitness watch. For this purpose, some wearers of such fitness trackers were asked about their behavior with regard to self-tracking, and participatory observations were carried out.

The magic of graphs

Figure 1: Graphic representation of the movement rings, Apple Watch (Photo: Lena Hirn)

All respondents agreed on one point:“Yes, it does motivate me”. But what makes recording all body data so interesting for some of us? An incentive for this could be that self-tracking, as a visualization practice, makes things (e.g. services) visible that were not previously visible. It is also known that data in the form of graphs, statistics and diagrams represent a supposedly scientific representation of reality for most people and that moving graphs evidently cause a kind of fascination (see Duttweiler / Passoth 2016: 12). On the one hand, curves and tables refer to scientific work, and on the other hand, images and graphics underpin a length of scientific data that does not need to be questioned (Duttweiler / Passoth 2016: 12f). In addition, the self-trackers hope to be able to use data and numbers to create an objective picture of themselves, as the numbers show how they “really” are (cf. Unternährer 2016: 203).
Most gadgets take advantage of this attractiveness of the scientifically and graphically presented data collection. This is how the Apple Watch on dynamically animated circle diagrams, which are characterized by different colors, the daily activity of the wearer can be understood: inside.

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If that’s not enough for you, see the Health App further diagrams of various personalized body values. All data is visualized for the user in different types of diagrams and, depending on the selection, displayed and compared to the day, week, month or year. Also informed Apple the consumers: inside about each measured value and its meaning in a short paragraph below the graphic.

Figure 2:
Graphical representation
the rest energy in the Health App. (Photo: Lena Hirn)
Figure 3:
Graphical representation
the resting heart rate in the Health App. (Photo: Lena Hirn)

In fact, for almost all of the people surveyed, the focus is on closing and, above all, controlling the above-mentioned activity rings. When asked what makes you look at your watch most often, one interviewee replied:

“Yes, whether I already have my movement rings full. [lacht]“

(A.S., Apple Watch)

All interviewees soon showed that the activity rings of the Apple Watch was the benchmark for daily exercise and, in particular, a “good conscience”. On closer inspection, however, in addition to the mere control of these statistics, there are other behaviors that are brought about by the clock.

Your will be my command

Where the classic wristwatch once served to inform us about the time and perhaps the current date, today fitness trackers have much more up their sleeves and also call us to take very specific actions. First of all, the will to wear the fitness watch on a daily basis should be mentioned at this point. The majority of my interviewees found that it was extremely important to most of them to wear the fitness tracker during the day. On the one hand, the clock guarantees accessibility as well as – and especially – the recording of movement data. Because only when the watch is worn can the activities of its users be recorded and made visible.

“(…) You know, then you’d prefer not to go for a run because you don’t have the watch with you, that doesn’t record it, then the clock doesn’t even know that I’ve done something.”

(P.H., Apple Watch)

Another interviewee made the following comments about forgetting the clock:

“Well, I have to say, it doesn’t really annoy me [wenn ich die Uhr nicht trage] And it doesn’t demotivate me either, but if you keep it on and look at what you’ve done during the day, how many calories you have burned or how many steps you have taken, then that is somehow motivating . ”

(A.K., Xiaomi Mi Band)

These assessments show that the watch is being worn consciously and actively so that movement data can be recorded. Accordingly, the watch’s ability to determine, record and visualize data is an essential factor which motivates and motivates the user to wear the fitness watch at the same time. Due to its ability to record, it affords its users to be carried inside at all times.

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Another abnormality was shown in direct connection. Almost all respondents stated that they called on the incomplete movement rings to act in the form of movement, activity and fitness. Some interviewees said that if their exercise goals were not met, they would go for a walk in the evening, for example, in order to achieve the daily activity goal.

“As I said, if the rings are not full, I’ll take action and make them full.”

(P.H., Apple Watch)

“Sure, so I’ve always looked at it and it’s actually like that, if I see today I haven’t moved enough, then I’ll even go again in the evening so that they get full.”

(P.H., Apple Watch)

In this context, other interviewees showed precisely this “now one more lap around the block” behavior:

“So when I see now that I just kind of just lay in bed all day and didn’t do anything, then I also stop on the clock, then I see oh you haven’t done anything and then it motivates me, now stop walk out again for half an hour or something. That you somehow did at least a little something. ”

(A.S., Apple Watch)

Figure 4: Reminder to stand, Apple Watch. (Photo: Lena Hirn)

However, the fitness watch not only develops implicit affordances, as just described, because fitness watches like this make it through explicit requests, e.g. through push notifications Apple Watch to drive us to certain actions. A well-known function that even the simplest fitness tracker has is the reminder to get up. All those questioned followed this little reminder without exception and thus developed new practices.

“Or something like that, you get up every hour, so that you should get up once the hour is moving. I do that through the clock, probably also more actively through the memory and I would not get up and move once every hour. ”

(T.P., Apple Watch)

When asked whether the fitness watch prompted participants to adopt new habits or practices, one interviewee said:

“Well, a new pattern, what I noticed is that I have been setting for half a year or so that the clock tells me to get up after an hour when I’m sitting down. Then I do that too. The pattern has definitely impressed itself on me. ”

(A.K., Xiaomi Mi Band)

Based on the experiences of my participatory observation, I was soon able to determine that the fitness tracker primarily motivated me to take shorter journeys, for example to the next train station or supermarket, more recently on foot than by bus or train. Of course, always with the background of achieving or even better surpassing my exercise goals.

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Although the wearing of fitness trackers for my interview partners has a positive effect on the daily activity of their users and encourages them to take new actions and practices, some stated that the motivation to do sport or to move is not significantly dependent on the measuring device depends:

“So either it’s there [die Motivation] or is it not there. So that has nothing to do with anything, but either I’m motivated or not. So I don’t think anything has changed. ”

(T.P., Apple Watch)

Fitness trackers are mostly used primarily to control body data. The aspect of controlling and the visibility of sporting activities predominated for the interviewees. In addition, almost all self-trackers stated that the fitness watch had increased their awareness of body and movement. My research has shown that fitness trackers always create awareness of body and movement. The control and visibility of the individual services motivated the users. In addition, the fitness trackers encouraged their users to take action implicitly and explicitly, for example by using push notifications to encourage them to get up or by satisfying and motivating their wearers by achieving daily activity goals and improving certain physical performance.


  • All field research materials (collected from December 25, 2020 to July 1, 2021) have been anonymized and are with the author.
  • Duttweiler S., Passoth J. (2016) Self-Tracking as an Optimization Project? In: Life by Numbers. (Eds) Duttweiler S., Passoth J. Strübing J.
  • Unterhährer M. (2016) Self-quantification as a numerical form of self-thematization. In: Life by Numbers. (Eds) Duttweiler S., Passoth J. Strübing J.

The author:

Lena Hirn was born in Starnberg in 1995 and began her academic career in 2016 at the Technical University of Cologne, which she left in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in multilingual communication. Since October 2020 she has been studying cultural anthropology at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. Coming from a family with an affinity for exercise and health, Lena Hirn has been interested in a healthy lifestyle since her youth and is herself a wearer of a fitness watch. She has been measuring and logging all body data for several years, which explains her interest in this research.

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