Getting the best out of your fitness tracker

Most fitness trackers provide valid and reliable measures of physical activity, for example, counting steps and activity minutes.

Dr James Sanders - Research Associate in Digital Health Technology at Loughborough University

However, the research also indicates that energy expenditure calorie counts, sleep measures and some physiological measurement like heart rate are less accurate, writes Dr James Sanders – a Research Associate in Digital Health Technology.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for recreational users as the measurement error tends to be consistent.

It means you can still reliably assess whether you are making progress as the device always over – or under – estimates the same way.

Basic pedometers (mechanical step counters) have been around for a long time, and when people use them their activity levels have been shown to increase.

Today’s fitness trackers are essentially fancy pedometers. So, there’s little reason to believe their added features and functionality make them less effective.

Of the few rigorous randomised controlled trials of fitness trackers, most found positive short-term outcomes.

For example, a study comparing people using pedometers to those using Fitbits, found that Fitbit users were 62 minutes more physically activity a week.

Other studies also found people using fitness trackers took significantly more steps compared with those in a control group, but only measured outcomes over a short period.

Too few studies have looked at how people use fitness trackers beyond three months to say if they work in the long term with some reports suggest many people soon stop using them.

A recent study conducted by Endeavor Partners found that one -third of customers stopped using their wearable activity tracker after six months.

Some attributed this problem to the fact that users’ needs to take off the device and recharge it.

Every time you remove a wearable tracker, it’s an opportunity to forget to put it back on again.

Another reason might be the need for additional information.

Unless wearable can provide additional actionable incentives or insights that lead to long term behaviour change, their impact can be limited.

Therefore, it is important that fitness trackers be part of an overall behaviour change strategy to promote an activity habit.

Top tips for your tracker (from Dr Sanders)

Pick the right device for you

“People will often ask what is the best fitness tracker? This question is comparable to the more well-known question of what is the best diet. And the answer for both questions is the same: the best option is the one that you will stick with. So, do your homework. Pick the device that best suits you. There are a plethora of devices out there at the moment so don’t be eager to go with what everyone else is getting.”

Pick a device that serves a dual purpose

“One of the major problems/reasons people stop wearing their devices is that they remove them to put them on charge and then people “fall off the health wagon” and stop using them. If the activity tracker serves a dual purpose (answering emails, messages etc) then it is more likely that you will continue to use the device as it serves another purpose.”

Link your activity to a health outcome

“There is strong evidence that being physically inactive poses a serious risk to our health. And yet this there is a global pandemic of physical inactivity. This is because the benefits of being physically active don’t appear immediate. We as a community are told to increase our physical activity and eat healthy to stave off chronic diseases in 30/40/50 years’ time. This isn’t a potent enough driver of behaviour change. However, there are now devices which can very quickly monitor your blood pressure and blood glucose. Although still in their early stages and potentially expensive, these devices can show the acute and immediate benefit activity can have on your health, rather than waiting four decades to see if you develop a chronic disease.”

Every little bit helps

“It’s important to remember not to become disenchanted if you don’t meet your goal. Remember, doing something is better than doing nothing. If you haven’t met your goal, try and determine why and alter your goal if you need to. Remember some it good, more is better.”

Loughborough University’s Christmas and New Year health and wellbeing campaign is aimed at using the knowledge and experience of academics and professionals to give advice about physical and mental wellness over the festive season and into next year.

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Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 18/10

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