A study from the University of Pennsylvania finds that smartphone step trackers are at least as accurate, and relatively free, as most wearable devices.
It seems as though everywhere you look these days you see a different wearable device. They wrap around wrists, clip on shoes, and slide into the pockets of many of those of us wealthy enough to be able to afford the investment of up to several hundred dollars. They come in a rainbow of colors, and are starting to look less like fitness equipment and much more like fashion accessories.
Source: Tory Burch for Fitbit
Source: Misfit Shine
With all the wearable options out there, making a purchasing decision isn’t easy. Some wearable wearers may not be aware that the newer generation of smartphones come pre-loaded with step-counting apps that may be more accurate than wearable devices.
Testing Apps and Wearable Devices for Accuracy
A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania tested 10 top-selling smartphone apps and devices to determine which were the most accurate.
“If a device is going to be effective at monitoring — and potentially changing — behavior,” according to Meredith Case, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, “individuals have to be able to trust the data.”
Fourteen healthy participants were recruited to wear all 10 different devices while walking on a treadmill set at 3.0 miles per hour for 500 and 1,500 steps. Each test was repeated twice. Participants wore one pedometer and two accelerometers on their waistbands, three wearable devices on their wrists, and a smartphone in each pocket (one ran three apps, the other just one).
The pedometer, accelerometers and smartphone applications performed significantly better than other wearable devices. Compared to direct observation, the relative difference in step count was -0.3% to 1.0% for the pedometer and accelerometers, from -22.7% to -1.5% for wearable devices, and from -6.7% to 6.2% for smartphone applications.
In other words, wearable users may be burning more calories than they think, which could be an added bonus for those seeking to lose weight. However, it could also mean that dieters might not be taking in enough calories to support basic functions.
The bottom line appears to be – once again – if a user is motivated enough to use a tracking device, then that is the right tracking device for the user. If you can afford a wearable and like the visual reminder, have at it! If you don’t want to spend the extra money on a wearable device and already own a smartphone, chances are you can get an app to track your steps on the cheap.
7 in 10 in Adults Own Smartphones
Only 1-2% of individuals living in the US own wearable devices, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Comparatively, 71.4% of adults in the US own smartphones.
The JAMA article critically examines the efficacy of wearable devices in bringing about behavior change. The authors argue that if wearable devices are to be part of a solution to the growing obesity epidemic, they will need to better align with theories of health behavior change.
Health apps must be designed to engage users over the long term. Recent studies have shown that, even if people like their apps, usage drops significantly after the first month.
Patel’s JAMA article recommends apps that leverage lottery designs with variable rewards rather than constant reinforcement. Patel also emphasizes the importance of accuracy in step tracking, as well as convenience.
The University of Pennsylvania study is a timely complement to Patel’s article, testing for accuracy and also comparing the performance of smartphone apps to wearable devices.
“Since step counts are such an important part of how these devices and apps measure physical activity, including calculating distance or calories burned, their accuracy is key,” said senior author Mitesh S. Patel, MD, MBA, MS, assistant professor of Medicine and Health Care Management at Penn and an attending physician at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. “Our findings suggest that smartphone apps could prove to be a more widely accessible and affordable way of tracking health behaviors.”