If your New Year’s resolution was to be more active, you aren’t alone. The emergence of devices like those produced by Fitbit, Jawbone, and Apple have people reexamining the role technology has to play in achieving their fitness goals. Dr. Greg Wells, an exercise physiologist and assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, refers to these devices as “quantified self-trackers,” which allow you to measure things like sleep, distance traveled, and steps taken.
Step counting is commonly used as a measure of activity with a frequent goal of 10,000 steps a day. According to Statistics Canada, only a third of Canadian adults manage that many.
Traditionally, step count was measured by a waist worn pedometer, which have evolved into wrist worn devices that use accelerometers to detect movement.
The accuracy of these wrist worn devices is questionable, however. A recent study by the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education concluded that pedometer apps are not accurate and that pedometers worn on the waist are still the most effective method of counting steps. Despite the inaccuracy of wrist worn devices, they help give an estimate of activity levels, with some devices enabling you to compete with friends.
Naima Salemohamed, a U of T graduate student uses her Fitbit Charge and says it helps her reach her fitness goals because of its competitive features. “I always compete with my friends who live in Vancouver. I like to have that aspect. Moreover, it ensures that I do 10,000 steps because I am constantly checking how many steps I am doing,” she says.
After using Nike’s Fuel Band for a year, primarily because it was sleek and had a display unlike other fitness trackers at the time, I found that the activity stats were inaccurate. Simply moving my arms triggered the device, whereas attending a spin class or running on the treadmill did not.
U of T student Kara Place found her Fibit to be inaccurate, however, she feels it generally gives a decent estimate. “Sometimes my band will vibrate to let me know I’ve hit 10, 000 steps when I’m putting on a sweater,” she said.
In addition to questions of accuracy, a recent report by U of T’s Citizen Lab found that users’ personal data may be at risk of being leaked to third party sources. Wells confirms that privacy risks are significant and that people should be aware that the data collected by their device are accessible to the company who made the device.
Place is also concerned about her privacy, but says it will not deter her: “We live in a world where we are all at risk of having our privacy breached or being tracked… so though this is annoying, I’m sure there are already other ways for people to gain my geographic location.”
Although wearables are inaccurate, both students feel that their Fitbit has helped them stay active. Place says, “If I see that one day I was less active then I’ll try to step it up the next day to compensate!.”
In terms of predicting future health, assistant professor of digital health Dr. Jayson Parker says, “the new ‘smoking risk’ is sedentary activity: the more you sit, the greater your cardiovascular risk… devices that remind you to stand to interrupt long periods of sitting, or to encourage you to spend more time moving, have pretty obvious benefits.”
Dr. Leah Hiller, a sports medicine fellow at the David L. MacIntosh Clinic agrees with doctors Wells and Parker that fitness trackers aren’t all bad, and that the benefits they provide in terms of connecting with a community of other wearers is valuable.
“Fitness trackers often provide forums for connecting with other people about activity, which can be beneficial,” she said, adding that “for the purposes of improving health outcomes, a five per cent discrepancy in reported activity level is likely inconsequential. What is more important with regard to health outcomes, is that people are being active.”
Parker says that “people can learn a lot about our patterns, sleep, people just needs to be aware that they are not entirely accurate. Early tech with limitations so take it with a grain of salt.”