5  July 2021, by Natalia Karbasova

Forget raw data, start telling stories: Why micro-narratives are the next frontier for the fitness industry

The fitness industry urgently needs to adopt data-based storytelling mechanics to create better user engagement strategies. Because: Fitness is a business of changing habits. 

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The fitness industry urgently needs to adopt data-based storytelling mechanics to create better user engagement strategies. Fitness is a business of changing habits, and companies that effectively employ meaningful micro-narratives and intuitive user guidance for habit formation will win the race in the mid-term.


Today, my Whoop - a tracker that is famous for its in-depth analytics and actionable guidance - told me that my sleep performance typically increased by 18% each time after I reported intermittent fasting. I felt a jolt of excitement - it seems like I’m on the right track! This, in turn, has reinforced my willingness to stick to this fasting protocol further on. This is how habits are formed.


As Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and best-selling author, writes in his book “The power of habit”, “small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach”. The “trigger - action - reward” mechanism kicks in, and we are on an improvement track, step by step.


Data collection in combination with user input

This is what Whoop is particularly good at. It combines automatic data collection like heart rate (variability), resting heart rate, sleep and respiratory rate with daily customizable user input (“Consumed fruits & vegetables?”, “Felt in control of your life?”, “Did intermittent fasting?”). The wristband’s simple, unobtrusive interface encourages you to wear it 24/7, thus making sure that the data collection always runs in the background, constantly synching with the app for new insights. What Whoop is particularly good at is, however, not the data mining as such, it’s the storytelling and helping users change their behavior. 

Welcome to the age of micro-narratives

We humans are not particularly good at understanding numbers, especially the development of those with time. If we were good at numbers, a phone book would probably be the global hit. Instead, it’s the Bible, packed with stories, that is the best-selling book of all time. It is stories that make us feel human, reconnect to each other, and find meaning. It is also stories, reinforced with data, that help us understand our own behavior and change it for the better.


Create attention with mini-stories

In the age of decreased attention spans and constant multi-tasking, micro-narratives can come to the rescue. In the fitness context, those can be defined as short and sweet pieces of information telling you something useful and actionable, a mini-story that helps you recognize patterns and relations between your behavior and emotional and physical wellbeing. What can be made visible, can be changed. Explaining our own patterns to ourselves is a formidable tool for behavior change. 

Natalia Karbasova is the Founder of the FitTech Summit, the leading conference in Europe devoted to fitness technology and future of wellbeing and active lifestyle. Before fully focusing on the fitness tech space, Natalia has been with Burda, one of Europe’s largest media companies, for 9 years. © FitTech Company 


Through micro-narratives, Whoop helps me to read my own body better, like:

“Your HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is within the typical range, indicating your body is recovered and ready for strain”, “Your sleep could use improvement to maximize recovery”, “Your bed and wake times varied by an average of 0:42 hours, resulting in poor consistency. However, this was a 0:10 improvement from your previous 3-week average. Keep improving!”


I believe this kind of meaningful data-based storytelling is something the fitness industry urgently needs to create better user engagement strategies. Micro-narratives do not require much attention from the user, and still offer formidable cues to further adjust the behavior, be it going to bed 30 minutes earlier, doing ten more pushups or remembering to drink enough water.


If data is king, meaningful insights are queen

We live in the world of data abundance. Wearables and apps collect tons of data, ranging from the number of steps taken, calories burned, heart rate and heart rate variability, respiratory rate, hours of sleep, sleep phases and even minor disturbances like a cough or snoring. Everything can be measured, but is data really as helpful as we are used to think? Today, we not only should measure what matters (this has become pretty easy with accessible sensor technology), but first and foremost understand the correlations and causations between different data points - and draw meaningful conclusions out of those.


What we need are clear and understandable narratives around our personal health and fitness data. This is where a tracker like Whoop, which is also one of the global fittech unicorns and has raised more than $100 million from top investors, comes into play. The company collects about 50-100 megabytes of data on a person per day, and the ultimate goal is to make this data actionable and easily understood by professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike. “Whoop collects about 1,000 to 10,000 times as much data as your average smartwatch,” says Whoop founder and CEO Will Ahmed.


Statistics matters, in the right context 

Guiding users through the process of personal health transformation and athletic performance is a powerful thing. For many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. Still, data points alone will not help you change your life unless you see the interdependencies, development over time and the big picture - of your own health, but also of your metrics as compared to the overall statistically relevant population.


As Will pointed out at the recent virtual FitTech Summit, “Whoop is designed to be a step ahead of the user and give them the right info on what to do next”. With “20.000 people on the database who are like you… we are creating a new baseline for health.”


A map of human health

If creating a “baseline for health” sounds familiar, I’m not surprised. Google has been ramping up its efforts in the health space for years, and the project Baseline by Verily (part of Google) strives for nothing less than to create a map of human health that can impact humanity within our lifetimes.


Apple is also very active on the data collection and habit change side, with Apple Watch being more of a health device than a smart watch, and Apple now selling more watches than the entire Swiss watch industry. “Closing the rings” on your Watch and making your habits observable can trigger shifts in behavior.


Data-rich but knowledge-poor

Still, just visualizing the data in an attractive way is not enough. As Anthony Katz, the founder of another emerging fittech unicorn Hyperice, told us in his interview, “we are living in a data-rich but knowledge-poor society”. The question we should be asking ourselves is: How do we apply that data to improve our lives?


I believe life improvement through meaningful micro-narratives is the next frontier in health and fitness. You don’t know what you don’t know, and companies that help you get a grasp of your body in an easily understandable way, and support you in making the next small step, are probably on their way to dominate the fitness space in the years to come.

About the FitTech Radar series

Technology increasingly interferes with the fitness and health world on many levels. What tech trends are we in for over the coming months? In this monthly series the movers and shakers behind our cooperation partner FitTech Summit provide you with insights into tomorrow’s world of fitness and health technologies.