Technology has become an inevitable part of our daily lives. Wearable technology and mobile apps have had a large impact on health and fitness and have become a go-to to access workout regimes, track fitness levels, and assess body changes overtime. They are convenient, cheap, and accessible, often offering individualized training programs in the comfort of your own home. But many of us users (and non-users) question just how effective these wearables and apps really are. Do they work? Have they led to fitness transformations? And, perhaps the golden question of these technological instruments… are they accurate?
Eighty-six percent of Canadians own a smartphone1, and thus smartphones are a great way to promote health and fitness to a large portion of the population. Research has shown that the most effective mobile fitness apps are ones that are personalized to the user and provide easy-to-implement strategies on how to conveniently increase physical activity levels2. Some of the preferred fitness apps, for example, are ones in which you are coached by real life trainers (Skimble), can create goals with friends (LoseIt!), and can track one’s diet (MyFitnessPal; as we know, diet and fitness go hand-in-hand).
But, do these apps actually promote change? Fitness apps have indeed been shown to be a successful vehicle for behavior change. In one study, seventy-five percent of fitness app users reported being more physically active3. Another study found that users are more active during leisure time compared to non-users3.
Wearable fitness technology (such as Fitbit monitors) is another useful tool for tracking physical activity behavior and is particularly convenient for those who do not own a smartphone. Additionally, wearables are great for individuals who do not always keep their phone on them (e.g., runners) but still want to track physical activity as accurately as possible.
So, what does the literature say about wearables? The global consensus is that they provide a relatively good estimate of movement, but do not provide a perfectly accurate count of steps, stairs climbed, etc. There are many scenarios, for example, in which step counts may be under- or over-estimated when wearing it on the wrist, such as moving your arms a lot while actually remaining stationary (overestimates step count), or keeping your arms straight while actually walking (underestimates step count)4.
Taken together, it appears that both fitness wearables and apps can be quite helpful. However, some general advice for users is: 1) before using a fitness app, decide on exactly what you want to get out of it and do your own research on apps that suit your needs/goals; and 2) if you are a Fitbit monitor (or comparable tool) user, do research on its specific limitations to try to optimize its use. In the end, however, no matter what fitness technological tool you use (if any), you ultimately decide on your fitness success, while apps and wearables are merely there to help, support, and encourage you.
By Joyla Furlano
- 13rd Annual Consumer Technology Ownership and Market Potential Study: Canada. 2016. Consumer Technology Association.
- Canadian Smartphone Behaviour in 2017: Continued Shifts to Virtual Spaces. 2017. Catalyst.
- Health & Fitness App Users Are Going the Distance with Record-High Engagement. 2018. Flurry Analytics.
- How Accurate are Fitbit Devices? 2019. Fitbit.
Photo credit: https://www.nutraingredients.com/Article/2018/02/28/Wearable-technology-Fitness-tracker-data-backed-to-boost-research-and-personalised-health