Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Trend Watch: Fitness Technology for Kids

New Year's Resolution: Get the kids off the couch.

As parents, many of the goals we have for ourselves are also goals we have for our children. However, we can more easily guide our children towards success, at times, because we are external motivators and can impose restrictions, encourage, and/or simplify processes for them. For example, in the case of healthy eating we simplify by choosing the right foods and serving them at proper meal and snack times, we encourage by rewarding good eating habits, and we restrict by limiting how many sugary treats they are allowed. When it comes to our own goals, there is no such all-in-one success coach. This is part of the reason fitness technology has become so popular in the adult fitness market. Things like Fitbit or the Wii balance board make it easier to track progress, to get motivated, and to work towards milestones. For certain personality types, these are the ultimate trainers. 

Based on the popularity of these products, and in response to a growing childhood obesity epidemic, companies have been creating fitness tech for children in hopes of expanding the market. I’m not totally on board with this type of motivation for children, and believe there are healthier, more sustainable ways to encourage activity, but let’s take a closer look at this current new trend.

Leapfrog LeapBand

By now, we’re all familiar with the Fitbit and its competitors - small, wearable fitness tracking technology that adults sport on their wrists and use to track their activity levels, sleep patterns, and fitness goals. With different apps, Fitbit users can share their step counts and activity successes with other users; encouraging healthy competition against their own daily best and that of their friends. These tiny, technological personal trainers aren't for everyone, but I can see the merit of using one of these relatively inexpensive pieces of wearable technology to train for a marathon or keep yourself on track when trying to get fit.

Based on the omnipresence of this product, LeapFrog has created the LeapBand a version for children. Chalked up with parental controls (to limit class time and night time use), these wrist accessories encourage kids to complete physical activities using games, points, and rewards.

XBox Kinect

With the popularity of video games, there is a lot of talk about the gamification. This is, essentially, using the theories and structures of video games outside of the gaming world. It can be used for anything from teaching a child to read to, in this case, encouraging physical activity. For this trend the sensor technology sold alongside video game consoles, like the XBox Kinect or the Nintendo Wii, is an easy sell. Kids mimic the movement of different sports, like tennis or soccer, from the comfort of their own homes, racking up points and watching the rewards on screen. These are somewhat physically demanding video gaming experiences (unless the child figures out how to manipulate the controller to get the points without following through on the full movement).

There are 2 reasons I can gauge that these products have been created:

Technological Awareness. Children are early adopters of technology who are showing interest in their parent’s Fitbits and (just like their parents) they enjoy the satisfaction of completing a challenge, the delight of playing games, and the act of tracking successes.

Childhood Obesity. The Canadian Government released statistics that tell us that “close to one third (31.5%) of 5- to 17-year-olds, an estimated 1.6 million, were classified as overweight (19.8%) or obese (11.7%) in 2009 to 2011” and the obesity percentage was three times higher in boys than girls (19.5% vs.6.3%).

Despite the potential for health improvements in children, I have many questions about the effectiveness of this trend. Most importantly: do these products send the right message about fitness and health to children or are we already making compromises this young?

But also: Do they have the power to sustain children's attention for the long run? Adults using Fitbit are self-motivated. A Fitbit tracks your daily activity (how many steps you took, how far you walked, etc) but expects the user to make the decision to workout and set goals for themselves. For children, the LeapBand games may become tiresome or repetitive and if children aren't learning to be fit for fitness sake, will their enthusiasm wane? Are children actually associating this with strengthening their bodies and staying healthy, or do they view it as a video game that is easily replaced by another pastime?

It is essential to get kids up and moving, and if this is the only way to inspire activity, then I support it, but I have to think that we can better encourage healthy habits by modelling for our children, introducing them to various activities, and prioritizing getting outside and moving. And, remember that there are options beyond the obvious team sports, dance lessons, hiking clubs, family Zumba classes at the Y. Finding what inspires your child to want to move for the sake of fitness may take a bit of trial and error but it will benefit them for a lifetime.

What do you think about fitness technology for kids? What works for your family?

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