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  • Writer's pictureHelen Burt Iain McCormick

The dangers of digital step counters

Photo credit: Bruno Nascimento.

Many of us have enjoyed the opportunity to get out and do more walking and running during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Fitness clearly has many health benefits as well as improving cognitive functioning and well-being[1]. Often a digital step counter can be helpful in providing immediate and useful feedback to us on how far we have walked or run. Yet there are dangers in becoming reliant on motivation generated by these types of step counters.

Psychology has a lot to tell us about the power of motivation[2]. There are fundamentally two different types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment. In this case the motivation is outside of us, it is extrinsic and might include winning a race, earning a prize or getting praise from others. By contrast intrinsic motivation involves feeling personally rewarded for undertaking an activity for its own sake rather than getting some kind of external reward.

Many of my coaching clients who want to improve their fitness levels find that using step counters is highly motivating, in the short term. However, over time they often find that step counters become less useful. Many find themselves endlessly checking their number of steps as they walk or run, and often feeling disappointed at the level they have achieved.

The likely reason for this change is that people start by using intrinsic motivation during exercise, that is they use it improve their own sense of health and wellbeing. However, over time the motivation changes to be extrinsic and governed by their step counter. If this is the case, they find that they need to go further and faster every time they run or walk. This becomes tiring and demotivating over time. Their exercise becomes punishing and avoiding it can become rewarding! So how can we use the best of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to keep us fit and healthy?

For most people to maintain motivation in the long term it needs to be primarily intrinsic. So, when you go running or walking focus on the immediate benefits to you of getting some fresh air, enjoying the scenery, and improving your health and well-being. By all means use a digital step counter, however, be careful that you don't keep checking it and that you use it only is a means of simply recording your efforts after exercise. If you start to feel demotivated during your exercise use your ‘inner coach’ to focus more clearly on the benefits to you personally, the value of exercise for its own sake. Enjoy!

Iain McCormick, 021 575449


[1] [2] Legault, Lisa. (2016). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1139-1.

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