Can a portable fitness tracker or smartphone app really inspire you to exercise more and stick with it? In a new analysis of 28 studies involving 7,454 people, use of these popular digital physical activity aids was linked to users taking 1,850 more steps per day compared to non-users (almost one more kilometer).
And the fitness app and tracker users were still moving a lot more 13 weeks later.
According to the study published in December 2020 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
“Continuously monitoring your progress and receiving feedback from an app or tracker can lead to significant changes in overall physical activity,” says Liliana Laranjo, Principal Investigator, MD, PhD, Medical School Researcher and University of Sydney Health Center at Westmead. Applied Research Center in Australia.
Analysis focused on new technologies and healthy adults
Dr Laranjo and the research team analyzed the results of studies conducted between 2014 and 2019 in women and men aged 18 to 65 who used various smartphone apps (including Moves and Accupedo-Pro) or wearable trackers (including Fitbit, Fitbug, Withings Activity Steel, and Jawbone) – and included a control group that did not use devices.
The studies measured the effectiveness of the devices through participant self-assessments and from data collected directly from apps and trackers or from research-grade accelerometers that also track participants’ activity levels. . Some of the measures included: number of steps per day, minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, weekly exercise days, minutes per week of total physical activity, or a measurement of oxygen uptake by the body during exercise.
This review is one of the first to examine the use of new trackers and apps by healthy people. It focused on newer technology that tracks activity and gives information automatically, unlike older devices that had to be connected to a computer to download exercise data, according to the study. Much of the existing work has also been done with people with chronic illnesses.
Previous research suggests that older types of devices resulted in small to moderate increases in activity levels; the purpose of this review was to see if the new technology made a difference, note the study authors.
Devices and apps were the primary tools for motivating and measuring physical activity in studies, but in most trials, participants also received support, encouragement, and help defining goals and problem-solving by other study participants or leaders through meetings, phone calls, emails, or text messages.
After an average follow-up period of 13 weeks (trial lengths ranged from 2 to 40 weeks), app and tracker users were more active than control groups, based on daily step count.
Even small changes can have a significant impact on health
The additional 1,850 daily steps could have significant health benefits, including a lower risk of fatal heart disease, diabetes and cancer, according to study co-author Bruno Heleno, MD, PhD, assistant professor at the NOVA Medical School of the Universidade Nova da Lisboa in Portugal. “Of equal importance, [we know from other data that] exercise appears to improve health-related quality of life, improve sleep, [and] reduce anxiety and depression, ”says Heleno.
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Laranjo and Dr Heleno say their analysis did not identify any device or app as the most effective at keeping users active. But the analysis suggested that trackers and apps were more effective at getting people to exercise more when they had features that allowed users to customize their exercise goals and plans, and that provided support and exercise. encouragement via text messages.
Personalization can help users set easy-to-achieve goals and then increase business with bigger goals in the future, says Laranjo. A lot of people get frustrated and give up if the benchmark is too high (like 10,000 steps per day), when in fact a small increase over someone’s average can be very beneficial, she explains. . “Starting slowly and progressing slowly, while constantly monitoring progress and receiving feedback from the app or tracker, can lead to significant changes in overall physical activity over time. “
The studies included a wide variety of individuals – inactive young adults, overweight men between the ages of 30 and 65, office workers with clerical jobs, resident physicians, and sedentary postmenopausal women. And while the researchers did not specifically analyze the data by other subgroups (for age, baseline activity level, or otherwise), Heleno says they saw no particular differences that stands. “We have no reason to believe that the results would be qualitatively different between men and women, young adults and middle-aged people, or sedentary and already active people,” says Heleno.
The takeaway for healthcare professionals is that they should have more confidence in recommending fitness trackers and apps for their patients who want to become more physically active, because this evidence suggests they are working, Heleno says.
With apps and trackers, certain types of feedback and accountability tend to improve results
“These results are important and promising for the use of these technologies to improve physical activity,” says Mitesh S. Patel, MD, associate professor of medicine and health care management at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and director of the Penn Medicine Nudge Unit, which studies and promotes healthy behavior change. Dr. Patel was not involved in this study.
“However, it is important to recognize that the increases in physical activity were not due to the use of the devices alone, but rather to their use with a behavior change program,” he says (referring to goal setting features and support from study leaders and other participants). Patel adds that the analysis has limitations, as it looked at studies involving young and middle-aged adults (not older adults) and most followed the effects of trackers and apps for two to three months, but not in the longer term.
Patel’s team within the Nudge Unit published a study in February 2020 in the journal JAMA network open who compared smartphone apps to wearable trackers in people newly discharged from hospital. Patel and others found that app users were more likely than tracker users to track their activity six months later.
“For those who want to use these devices, smartphone apps that track activity are often free and easy to use,” he says. “I would suggest using one of these first and then deciding if the additional features and tracking available on a portable device will provide any additional useful information.”
And whatever app or tracker you choose, Patel says it can work best if you also have the responsibility and support of a structured program, such as a wellness program at work or with a supportive friend or family member.
Fitness researcher Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, director of Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Life of Fitness, suggests consumers new to activity tracking use the results of this study to inform their choices and look for apps and trackers that allow you to personalize your goals and get feedback on your progress toward those goals .
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To better cultivate a lasting motivation – which goes beyond the initial excitement about starting something new and continues to motivate you when the novelty wears off – people need to be very clear about their “why”. to want to make a change, like feeling happier, having more energy, or feeling stronger mentally after exercise, says Dr Segar, who was not in the Australian study. Some apps and fitness trackers have features that can help users find and continue to harness that meaningful motivation, she says.
And she adds, find what makes you tick. Just because trackers and apps helped a lot of people in these studies doesn’t mean they worked for everyone, Segar says. “Like other popular exercise tools, they aren’t for everyone.”