exercise_2_finalPersonalized fitness apps and devices just won’t become mainstream. New research from Pew’s Internet & American Life Project backs me up on this concern.

It found that 60% of Americans track some aspect of their health. But note what that means: It includes something as simple as regularly weighing yourself and keeping a loose mental tally of how you fluctuate.

The flip side of this is that a whopping 40% of Americans don’t even do that.

Of that 60%, 49% simply keep track in their heads. Only one-fifth of this category uses any technology to track their health and fitness at all. That includes even a basic spreadsheet or pedometer. The use of any of these newer health apps, sites and devices is likely a very small part of that.

Plenty of technology companies have spent decades competing with replacing pen and paper solutions, but in this case only 34% of people who track any aspect of their health even write anything down.

This backs up what I’ve argued for a while: The explosion of fitness devices of late — the FitBit, the Up, Nike Fuel, and especially the long tail of fitness social networks and encouragement apps– are just fighting too hard with fundamental human nature.

It’s possible that healthcare or insurance incentives to stay healthy could force these guys mainstream or the ease of use and tracking could become embedded enough into our mobile devices that it’s more seamless. But just appealing to vanity and health isn’t going to be enough.

Look at where, in general, apps and the Web have excelled in the past:

  • Convenience: The human race has always sought shortcuts and been willing to pay for them
  • Connection: We crave easier ways to communicate with other people, whether it’s letters, phones, faxes or email and text. When you put photos with it, it’s more powerful
  • Guilty pleasures and time wastes: Humans’ penchant for escapism through fantasy and fiction and even gossiping about others is about as old as the wheel. See also anything with comments, streaming content, YouTube, or Tumblr.

This is not to say the Web hasn’t made us better people. Good that has come from the Web has typically flown out of those categories– sometimes inadvertently.

But what apps and the Web have never particularly done well is change us. I heard Sequoia Capital’s Roelof Botha say this a few years ago and I have quoted it repeatedly since: You have to design Web apps for the way people are, not the way they wish they were. 

This is one of those categories like the social travel space. I wish I were a good enough friend to want to help other friends discover and plan trips. And most of us wish our lives were well funded and cool enough to be able to take lots of crazy adventure trips every year. But both are just not universally true.

Everyone designing a health and fitness app will cite how massive the industry is in the offline world. But if you look at the offline health and fitness industry, it’s largely designed to make money despite people’s lack of willpower. Gyms notoriously lock you into contracts knowing you will flake; self-help books tie into that aspirational aspect of self-betterment too. They don’t make money once they are read, just off the nice idea that someone will read them and maybe implement everything they suggest.

But most make-me-better apps and sites rely on continuing engagement to build a company. At least the hardware companies in the space get paid when you purchase a device.

This is not to say there’s not a lucrative niche here. But I fear anyone relying on this to become a mass-market business predicated on advertising to survive or anyone thinly funded hoping for viral adoption just isn’t going to make it.

If humans– particularly Americans– were different, we’d be healthier. It’s not rocket science: Eat better and exercise. We know how to do it. We just don’t. The ability to clip something on your belt or have virtual work out buddies doesn’t change that.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]