Lead author Dr Liliana Laranjo says the result is significant, as this level of increase in physical activity is associated with lower risk of premature death and of health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.
It’s promising for the many Australians with access to the technology. According to a recent survey by Deloitte, 91 per cent of us own a smartphone, 22 per cent own a fitness tracker and around a quarter use an app to monitor fitness levels.
Dr Laranjo says the growing prevalence of fitness tracking apps and wearables – including the popular Apple Health software and Fitbit smartwatches – prompted her to want to understand whether the newer technology was actually motivating us to move more.
There have been reviews in the past but they focused on older devices, such as pedometers, rather than what people are using nowadays. Dr Laranjo says modern trackers are effective because they promote self-monitoring, allowing people to trace their activity, compare their progress to their goal, and get feedback in the form of graphs and tables.
The review found that trackers work best when they promote personalisation – for example with goals that are set by users or that change according to an individual’s behaviour – and when they send text messages to motivate or educate.
Dr Laranjo says she hopes tech companies take on board these findings, pointing out many devices still have preset goals such as achieving 10,000 steps a day. She warns that this can be demotivating, and the focus should be on increasing movement by any amount – and not just with steps.
“Any increase in physical activity is good. It’s not just when you reach 10,000 steps that something magic happens,” she says. “That’s where personalisation is really important, it should be about whatever physical activity you enjoy doing, because that’s the one you will maintain in the long-term.”
Dr Laranjo says another challenge with activity trackers is the drop-off rate, with reports a third of people abandon their device in the first six months.
“It’s one thing to demonstrate these interventions increase physical activity in the short-term … but for long-term health benefits we really need people to increase their physical activity in the long-term,” she says.
She is hopeful this can be achieved if trackers continue to enhance their customisation features and integrate more health data. The latest trackers can monitor heart rate, body temperature and stress.
Nonetheless, Dr Laranjo says the review proves current trackers can be valuable health tools, and she encourages their use. She adds that you don’t need to invest in an expensive smartwatch to benefit.
“Almost all smartphones nowadays are able to count number of steps and … just being able to walk more is great exercise,” she says.
She suggests health professionals and personal trainers also use the technology with clients to support behaviour change.
Accredited exercise scientist Mitchell Finn, owner of Foresight Fitness in Brisbane, says activity trackers play a role in his work.
“I commonly see clients for one maybe two hours a week and so it gives you a good idea of lifestyle and activity factors outside the gym,” Finn says.
He finds trackers work well for people who are detail-oriented and motivated by closely monitoring their performance, and for people who enjoy competing with others, with some devices allowing friends to connect or join fitness challenges.
Dr Laranjo says future studies should explore whether people would still benefit from using trackers after one or two years. The research was partly funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, and not linked to any companies that make fitness trackers.
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Sophie is Deputy Lifestyle Editor for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.