Technology works for tracking fitness

walkingFeb. 16, 2015—There’s a new reason to embrace technology: It can track our fitness, and it can track it—at least our steps—accurately, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers found that many fitness tracking tools, such as wearable devices and smartphones, can count our steps with little fault. The research helps solidify technology’s role in fitness—and may encourage some people to start adding tracking devices to their exercise arsenals.

About the study

Researchers recruited 14 people to test top-selling smartphone applications and wearable devices designed to track physical activity. Each person:

  • Wore a Digi-Walker SW-200 pedometer as well as 2 accelerometers, the Fitbit Zip and Fitbit One, on his or her waistband.
  • Wore 3 wearable devices—a Fitbit Flex, a Jawbone UP24 and a Nike Fuelband—on his or her wrist.
  • Carried an Apple iPhone 5S running 3 iOS apps—Fitbit, Health Mate and Moves—at the same time in a pants pocket.
  • Carried a Samsung Galaxy S4 running the Moves Android app in the other pants pocket.

The participants had all the devices on them at the same time while walking 3 miles per hour on a treadmill for tests of 500 and 1500 steps. An observer counted each person’s steps using a tally counter.

Compared with the observer’s counts, many of the apps and devices were largely accurate.

The most accurate were the pedometer and accelerometers worn on the waistband. These recorded a relative difference in either direction of 1 percent or less. Smartphone applications also did very well, showing a difference of about 6.5 percent.

Wearable wrist devices showed a wider range, with some being quite accurate. Their relative difference was 22.7 percent to 1.5 percent lower than actual step counts. However, only the Nike Fuelband reported that steps were more than 20 percent less than the actual count.

The findings suggest that technology may be better at monitoring fitness than people might expect. With smartphone use widespread in the United States, apps or devices that connect to our phones offer an easy way for Americans to track—and possibly increase—our activity levels, researchers say.

Read the study in The Journal of the American Medical Association .

The take-home message
Devices and smartphone apps may offer an easy way to become more engaged with physical activity. And walking is an inexpensive, low-risk way to start putting this tech to use. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), 150 weekly minutes of moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, can:

  • Improve cholesterol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increase energy
  • Strengthen bones
  • Prevent weight gain

Best of all, starting a walking program is easy. The AHA says all you need are comfortable, loose-fitting clothes; supportive sneakers; and socks made from synthetic materials to help wick away moisture and prevent blisters.

It’s best to start by walking for short periods of time, such as 10 minutes, and gradually add a few more minutes each week.

If you begin walking, keep these tips from the AHA in mind:

  • Warm up at an easy tempo before picking up the pace
  • Add variety with brisk intervals
  • Walk up hills to tone your legs and burn more calories
  • Stretch your hamstrings; calves; and chest, shoulders and back at the end of your walk

Finally, always remember to walk safely. Bring along a partner when you can, or keep your phone handy for emergencies. If you choose to wear headphones, keep the volume low so you can hear your surroundings. Walk on sidewalks rather than the street, and wear light colors or reflective clothing to help drivers know you’re there.


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