Running, Versailles, France

Fitness Trackers: High Tech Placebos or Coaches?

Fitbit-Alta_Workout-3It’s hard to tell whether fitness trackers will turn out to be high tech placebos or coaches. Everything you read talks about promise and short-term outcomes — along with tech companies jostling for a competitive advantage. It’s pretty clear that physical activity monitoring technology offers plenty of promise and plenty of unfinished business.

A research letter published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine supports the idea that you should not count on the absolute accuracy of these monitors at this stage in their development. Others have warned that step counts can vary significantly. Haruka Murakami and colleagues examined the estimates for energy expenditure that they provide and concluded:

Although further studies are required, the findings presented herein suggest that most wearable devices do not produce a valid measure of total energy expenditure.

Regardless of these challenges, this technology does seem to have potential to engage people to increase their routine physical activity. A six-week randomized controlled trial in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that a walking program augmented by activity tracking technology led people to increase their daily activity by 970 steps versus the control group.

The real promise of all this technology is engagement says Emil Chiauzzi of PatientsLikeme:

Activity monitoring has the potential to engage patients as advocates in their personalized care, as well as offer health care providers real world assessments of their patients’ daily activity patterns.

Clearly, we have a lot of unfinished business in fitness monitoring. Glittering potential and short term outcome data will mean nothing without further work to keep people engaged and deliver real health outcomes. Everyone from Google to Apple to Fitbit seems vested in working it out. Add in a few hundred million consumers who are already on board and it’s not hard to imagine that fitness monitoring might result in a bit more fitness.

We can hope.

Click here for more from the New York Times, here for more from Chiauzzi, here for the study by Murakami, and here for the RCT in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Running, Versailles, France. Photograph © Living Fitness / flickr

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March 25, 2016

2 Responses to “Fitness Trackers: High Tech Placebos or Coaches?”

  1. March 27, 2016 at 10:25 am, Ruthielil said:

    I’ve been wearing an fitness device since April 11, 2012. I’m 64. During that time I have accumulated an average of >11,000 steps every day — 7/7. My BMI was 21 when I started; it’s still 21. I’ve never been outside of a healthy BMI, though 8 years ago I was at the top end of it rather than the bottom end. I adore my activity device. But does it help me lose weight? Not a bit. As Dr Yoni Freedhoff said in a blog post, “it’s easier to lose weight in your kitchen than at the gym.” What my activity does do for me is let me sleep like a stone, give me a resting pulse of ca 53, normal to low blood pressure, and no meds of any kind. Dr Freedhoff also says that “the single best thing you can do for your health is exercise.” I believe him. My fitness device contributes to my great quality of life. And hopefully it’ll help keep me from being a drain on Canada’s health care system as I continue to age.

    • March 27, 2016 at 4:35 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing your helpful perspective, Ruthielil.