Research finds fitness trackers increase physical activity

People who use fitness trackers are more active than those who don’t, averaging 2 000 more steps a day. 

An increase in activity can potentially lower the risk of chronic disease like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. It also improves quality of life and reduces the risk of premature death.

This is according to research from the University of Sydney that found that using smartphone apps and activity trackers increased physical activity levels in adults aged 18 to 65 without chronic disease.

Dr Liliana Laranjo, of the university’s faculty of medicine and health, said: “Our study is the first to show that activity trackers and mobile apps currently being used by consumers are indeed effective in improving physical activity, with an average increase of around 2 000 steps per day.”

The university said the study measured physical activity, including daily step counts, minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, weekly days exercised, minutes per week of total physical activity, and a measure of oxygen uptake by the body during exercise.

“We also found that some specific features of these interventions such as personalisation and text messaging, appear to be particularly effective in increasing physical activity,” said Laranjo.

Similarly, a study by Discovery Vitality found fitness devices helped people stay fit during the Covid-19 pandemic, aided by online workouts and devices taking on the role of a “digital coach” to keep them going.The research was by Wits Sport and Health at the University of the Witwatersrand and Discovery Vitality.

Dinesh Govender, chief executive of Vitality, said: “Vitality is a behaviour change programme that finds its apex in technology. It does this by offering people a combination of knowledge, access to wellness partners and financial incentives that increase proportionally as members engage with the programme.”

In its Science of Vitality report released in March, the company said it analysed more than 400 000 people from three countries — South Africa, the United States and Britain — and measured the effect of loss-aversion as an incentive, specifically having to pay for an Apple Watch through Vitality Active Rewards.

It resulted in 34% of users becoming more active than before — the equivalent of an extra 4.8 days of physical activity a month.

Additionally, device workouts seemed to be the most effective way to encourage people to exercise during lockdown. Most people who exercised in gyms and tracked other workouts on devices before Covid-19 continued logging their workouts on devices when gyms were closed, the report said.

Dr James Burger, a sports physician specialising as a psychiatrist in the Western Cape, said the pandemic has had far-reaching effects on people’s lives and health and it is vital to exercise for physical and mental health.

He agreed that wearable technology is popular among those who are active and while there is evidence of it increasing daily physical activity, obsessing over data can be a challenge. This is something he has seen with sleep and recovery data, which can increase anxiety.

“Rigidity around following calculated targets and not being in tune with your body’s daily fluctuating needs, injuries and niggles can result in overtraining and doing damage. It is key that we balance the information from wearables with the ability to remain present and intuitive with our bodies,” said Burger.

Although fitness trackers may not be necessary to start a fitness journey, there may be many people who will find them useful, he said. “The aim is to create an environment where it is easier to be active. The person still needs to be ready and motivated to change their behaviour.”

David Greenway, an aspiring CrossFit athlete in Johannesburg, said that working out allows him to get a new Apple Watch every two years. 

“Being able to quantify things means you can measure improvement. So having a wearable that allows you to track sleep, diet, exercise and health markers like heart rate and blood oxygen lets you close the loop on seeing your changes in lifestyle manifest in the data.”

“The ‘gamification’ of the watch has lost some of its initial charm, however the tangible financial rewards of meeting the gamified health goals from Discovery are very motivating.

“When the pandemic hit, it was great to have the knowledge that I was on the healthy end of the spectrum and that would likely lead to more positive outcomes when I eventually caught Covid,” he said.

“Society at large has mostly ignored just how much you gain from being active and the pandemic has brought that to the fore again which is fantastic.”

Communications specialist Natassia Badenhorst said her Fitbit had helped in her weight loss journey, but she doesn’t fully engage with the gamification aspect. “I use it for my own goals, which is sticking to five to six days a week and burning 350-500 calories per session.”

“My fitness journey started in 2018 when my health was in a dire state, but the pandemic made me see the value and the benefit of a fitness routine. I became more disciplined in making time for myself, especially in the hard lockdown stage,” she said.

“I had to find space in my house to set up a gym, but beyond finding the space, I had to find the time between being a working mom, wife, and housekeeper. I would not be writing this today if it was not for my determination to keep to a strict fitness routine.”

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Nafisa Akabor
Nafisa Akabor

Nafisa Akabor is a freelance technology journalist.

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