Connected fitness—which we define as online and digital fitness tools, apps, and communities—can offer people a flexible way to stay active and increase motivation for exercise. Research shows that communities can shape how people understand their own digital self-tracking data. Much of the research on online and digital fitness apps and communities has rightly focused on positive behaviour change, exercise motivation, and the social, cultural and political implications of collecting personal digital data on wellness, bodies and health. This project asks how connected fitness tools and communities might influence the formation and maintenance of social connections.
This study will assess how self-tracking data shapes social communities and the support people that receive from them. Our study will map the roles that online fitness communities play in maintaining psychological and social wellbeing and social connectedness during COVID restrictions and beyond. There is robust scholarship about the impact of self-tracking technologies on individuals. However, more research is needed on more diverse communities across demographics and to gauge community effects of self-tracking and connected fitness. We propose a two-stage, comparative mixed methods study to answer the following:
RQ1: How have adults in US, UK and Australia used online fitness communities to maintain or build social connections during COVID-19 restrictions and beyond?
RQ2: Do people experience connected fitness as a form of social support?
RQ3: Are there measurable increases in social connections from connected fitness and if so, are these associated with measurable psychological benefits?
RQ4: What benefits and challenges of connected fitness as a means of social support do people identify and how do these differ across contexts of use and countries?
This study will 1) Collect and analyse representative data measuring the extent of engagement with connected fitness using both an online Qualtrics survey panel and a specialist panel of enthusiastic users of self-tracking devices in the US, UK and Australia where different kinds of COVID restrictions have been in place and 2) Conduct and analyse in-depth digital interviews with users and non-users of connected fitness tools and communities to understand how individuals experience them as supporting social connection and social support and fostering community ties.
We might find that social motivations for connected fitness are even more important in some vulnerable or marginalised communities where connected fitness could present a scalable solution for community and cultural organisations, and we propose to work with these stakeholders.