Wearables unlikely to increase physical activity

Fitbit lineup

Just weeks after researchers called into question the effectiveness of wearable activity trackers to help users lose weight, a new study claims that such tools are unlikely to help even increase activity.

For the study, published this week in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, researchers from the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore recruited 800 individuals, equipping roughly 600 with Fitbit Zip trackers; 201 were assigned to a control group and 203 to a Fitbit only group, while 197 were told to use the tracker and promised a weekly cash reward for activity for six months. The remaining 199 were told to use the tracker and were promised a weekly reward for six months for activity that would go to charity. Activity was measured at the end of the intervention at six months and again at 12 months.

The researchers found that while cash helped increase “moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” through the first six months, that increase did not last. They also determined that despite the increase in steps, the activity trackers failed to produce noticeable health improvements.

“Activity trackers alone are not going to stem the rise in chronic diseases,” lead study author Eric Finkelstein said in a statement. He added that while such tools could still be part of a “comprehensive solution,” incentive strategies would “likely have to be permanent” to avoid activity regression.

Earlier this week, however, Fitbit shared research findings showing that the total healthcare cost of employees who opted into their company’s wellness program using the devices was $1,300 less per person than for those who did not participate in the program. Additionally, Fitbit said, the Dayton Regional Transit Authority was able to save $2.3 million in employee health costs thanks to a corporate wellness program using Fitbit devices. Fitbit funded the former study.

Recent research out of the University of Washington focusing on Fitbit user behavior determined that device makers should ensure that their tools are not one-size-fits-all when it comes to user experience.

“Right now self-tracking apps tend to assume everyone will track forever, and that's clearly not the case," co-author James Fogarty, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering, told Phys.org.