Technology may have contributed to kids becoming too sedentary, but now, wearable fitness and activity trackers for children are the latest tools in the high-stakes war on childhood obesity.
These devices, typically worn on the wrist, are designed to encourage kids to stop sitting around, staring at screens, and instead get moving. And when parents participate, too, it tends to help kids have more active, healthy lifestyles, doctors say.
“If kids are using these devices with their families, they are a great tool,” says Dr. Zoey Goore, president of the Northern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a pediatrician in Roseville. “Even if the children are not competitive about fitness, it just encourages them to be more engaged in activities.”
Boosting Activity, Protecting Privacy
About 17 percent of American children from age 2 to 19 are obese, a rate that has remained fairly steady over the last decade. It’s a problem that affects about 12.7 million children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Products like Fitbit, LeapFrog LeapBands and Geopalz are among dozens of gadgets that keep track of physical activity, create a social network of friends with whom to compete on physical challenges or allow parents to program goals and games for their kids.
“With kids, anything that is a game ends up being more interesting,” Goore says.
Using apps and wearable tech could help cajole kids to go on longer hikes, or try new types of physical activities. As an added bonus, she says, these devices often get the whole family to exercise more.
“It points out to parents and children how sedentary they are,” Goore says. “It brings awareness and helps create family fitness goals.”
Some fitness trackers sync up with programs online that help kids track their steps, exercise, miles—even hours of sleep. Some allow kids to create a social network of friends to encourage or “taunt” them about their progress. Taunting may inspire some kids, while others may be hurt by that kind of interaction.
Goore cautioned parents to be aware of the online element of some wearable fitness trackers to make sure the children’s needs are respected and privacy is protected. Fitbit, for example, doesn’t allow kids under 13 to create online accounts. But older kids can register and link up to friends who also have accounts that display their number of steps, and allow them to compete in challenges with each other.
Kids Helping Kids
The kids use the Power Bands along with an app that sends them on “missions” where they learn about new cultures and earn points by completing physical activity challenges.
The points “unlock” funding for UNICEF to use to deliver packets of therapeutic food to malnourished children around the world. Funding for the food packets comes from the sale of the bands, corporate sponsors and donations from friends, parents and others.
“One in four American kids are inactive, and one in four kids worldwide suffers from malnutrition,” says Rajesh Anandan, the Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and UNICEF Ventures. “So we decided to put the problem in the hands of the children.”
But can these really make a difference in children’s fitness? Some kids will try using a fitness tracker and lose interest quickly, say parents and doctors, while others will make using the device a part of daily life.
‘I Didn’t Walk as Much Before’
Since 12-year-old Zachary Berston started wearing his Fitbit fitness tracker, he says he’s more conscious of being physically active every day.
Berston is a seventh-grader at Kent Middle School in Kentfield, about 20 miles north of San Francisco. He gets emails sent to his phone from the Fitbit app nudging him to reach his daily goal of 10,000 steps.
“It really motivates me and keeps reminding me I have to complete my goal,” he says. “It helps me out.”
The first thing Berston did when he got the Fitbit as a birthday present from his parents, he says, was walk to the grocery store for something to drink, and walk around town to get steps.
“It got me to do a lot more things than I would have if I had not had it,” he says. “I didn’t walk or try to get out as much before.”
Zachary’s father, Dr. Emanuel Berston, says the fitness trackers could even help provide doctors with useful data on patients who are trying to lose weight and get in shape.
“They are absolutely beneficial and it’s helpful to have data for patients, especially teenagers, to be accountable,” says the pediatrician, who practices at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Daly City. “We live in such a digital age, and teenagers like information.”
The devices have encouraged some patients to jump-start weight-loss efforts, he says, and work well combined with a nutrition program
“It’s something on their wrists that is very encouraging,” he says. “They get to see you don’t have to go to the gym. It just takes walking around.”
One of Berston’s patients, a 16-year-old girl who weighed 248 pounds, recently lost 11 pounds with the help of a fitness tracker, he says. The teen was so motivated to reach her goal of 10,000 steps a day that once when she was short at around 10:30 p.m., he says she paced the hallway to make sure she reached it by midnight.
Berston says he doubts the devices create too much pressure for kids to meet their goals.
“You can always take it off,” he says. “It’s not glued to your wrist.”
Lisa Fine is a veteran journalist who's written for papers including the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch and Education Week.