Smartphone fitness apps and wearable activity trackers boost physical activity levels

A new study supports the efficacy of smartphone fitness apps and wearable activity trackers at elevating levels of physical activity. In a review that combined data from 35 studies, published this month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers conclude that the technologies are successful at inducing a small to moderate change in activity levels.

The study’s findings suggest that offering wearables and apps on prescription could be beneficial to those at risk of the negative health implications of inactivity, such as cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and more.

Fitness Trackers

Fitness Trackers. Image Credit: Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com

Do fitness trackers and apps work?

Around the world, around 1.4 billion adults (over 25% of the adult population) fail to meet daily recommended physical activity levels. These figures are concerning, given that physical inactivity is considered to be a leading cause of death globally, costing health services billions each year.

Various studies have linked physical inactivity with numerous serious health implications, including coronary heart disease, depression, types of cancer (such as breast and colon), high blood pressure, stroke, type two diabetes, and obesity. Physical inactivity is also associated with a greater risk of death of any cause.

Strategies that aim to target and change behaviors are considered to be among the most effective techniques at increasing physical activity. Smartphone apps and wearable activity trackers incorporate self-monitoring and feedback that are designed to encourage users to be more active.

Given the widespread use of smartphones, with roughly half of the word estimated to own one, and activity trackers and fitness apps used by roughly a third of adults in the US and the UK, apps, and fitness trackers offer an opportunity to target a wide segment of the population. However, until now, studies reviewing the efficacy of these apps and trackers at increasing activity levels had produced inconsistent results, nor had they investigated the impact of these strategies on healthy adults.

The new study aimed to fill these gaps in knowledge. To achieve this, a team of researchers reviewed relevant studies published between January 2007 and January 2020 that involved healthy participants aged 18-65 who had no long-term health conditions. A total of 28 studies were selected and included in the meta-analysis, which pooled and analyzed the data of over 7,000 people.

The results revealed that use smartphone apps or activity trackers were successful at increasing a person’s average daily step count by 1,850 steps. Further analysis reversed that smartphone apps and activity trackers significantly increased users' general physical activity levels. The results also concluded that certain features were more effective at increasing levels of physical activity, such a text-message prompts tailored features, goal setting, planning, and tasks differentiated by their level of difficulty.

The researchers highlight that the data included in their analyses was mainly collected from men, and, therefore, the results may not apply to both genders. In addition, they emphasize that the efficacy of the different techniques ranged from low to moderate, with not all techniques effective at increasing activity to the same level.

Using smartphones and fitness trackers to reduce risk of health implications

The study’s researchers describe the significance of their findings, “given the wide and increasing reach of smartphones, even modest improvements in physical activity can produce large effects at the population level.” The team also concludes that the results of their study will likely be useful in guiding clinicians treating those with high levels of inactivity.

They suggest that prescribing apps and trackers may be beneficial in helping people make necessary behavioral changes to increase their activity level. The impact could be significant in reducing the prevalence of health risks associated with low physical activity levels.

Journal reference:
  • Laranjo L, Ding D, Heleno B, et al
    Do smartphone applications and activity trackers increase physical activity in adults? Systematic review, meta-analysis and metaregression
    British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 21 December 2020. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2020-102892
Sarah Moore

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Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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