An interdisciplinary study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech suggests the secret to obtaining your summertime fitness goals might not be the amount of weight you’re bench pressing or how many miles you run, but generating friendly competition to keep you one step ahead of your fitness buddies.

The concept of friendly competition in group exercise being explored by the researchers uses a smartwatch app that could help people in a group exercise program get — and stay — more active.

At the heart of the group exercise research is a Fitbit-like smartwatch and its software developed by Andrey Esakia, a doctoral candidate in Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science who worked on the project to study the effects of technology in group physical activity. The work is supported by a multidisciplinary seed grant from Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology.

Esakia collaborated with the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences to incorporate the hardware and software of the watch into an existing initiative, FitEx, from the Physical Activity Leadership Team of Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Physical Activity Research and Community Implementation Laboratory. FitEx is an eight-week physical activity and fruit and vegetable consumption program delivered in community settings.

“It’s been like a dream to be able to conduct this research and basically combine my interest in health and computer science so completely,” said Esakia. “We now have preliminary results from participants of this study to enhance the computer science data of the project.”

Esakia is first author on a paper detailing the initial results of the team’s research and recently presented the findings at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer Human Interaction Conference in Denver, Colorado.

Esakia worked on the app component with Scott McCrickard, an associate professor of computer science.

“Because of the social media and just plain social aspect of the FitEx initiative, we thought it would be a good option to try something à la the Fitbit, but better suited for groups,” McCrickard said of the smartwatch.

Michael Horning, an assistant professor of communication, also contributed to the digital design aspects of the project by consulting on the website interface design and usability.

Across the commonwealth 275 people participated in the FitEx program and 27 used the smartwatches to track their behavior with others.

The watch was part of a three-component system called FitAware, in which participants used the watch, a companion Android app, and a website to track the number of steps they took throughout the day. Results were derived from watch, phone, and web usage logs and semistructured phone interviews.

”As we hypothesized, engagement with the watches encouraged friendly competition within the groups we studied,” said Samantha Harden, an assistant professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise. “When individuals could see what their counterparts were doing, it drove them to be more physically active, even if that was hopping on a basement treadmill as late as 10 p.m.”

Esakia designed and developed the smartwatch app used in the study on the Pebble platform (now owned by Fitbit). Participants could compare their progress with that of their cohort in terms of number of steps by referencing the watchface layout which indicated number of individual steps compared to the team, and the team’s number of steps compared to other teams. On average participants synced their smartwatch to their phone 2.6 times per day throughout the study, suggesting participants were successful in staying engaged with the fitness task, while they used the app by itself 1.5 times per day.

The ability of participants to use a glanceable interface rather than having to log into a website or be interrupted by updates was also key to the success of participants’ physical activity.

So, if you think having a monthly draft of gym fees of your hard-earned dollars will motivate you to exercise, count on your debit card getting more of a workout than you do when you go it alone. Group exercise using a smartwatch app may just be the key to inspiring  physical activity and reaching fitness goals, one step at a time.

Written by Amy Loeffler