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Researchers Question Effectiveness of Wearable Activity Trackers

The wearable activity market has seen significant growth in recent years, and the trend seems poised to continue. However, new information from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore suggests many buyers may not get their money’s worth—at least as far as health improvements are concerned.

This information, published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology (2016; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2213-8587(16)30284-4), comes from a yearlong study of 800 employees aged 21–65 from 13 companies. Its purpose was to test the impact of wearable trackers on users’ activity, weight, blood pressure and cardiorespiratory fitness levels. Researchers also wanted to determine whether incentives would affect outcomes.

Participants were assigned to one of four protocols: control, Fitbit Zip activity tracker, tracker plus charity incentives (charitable donations would be made based on step goal achievement) and tracker plus financial incentives (participants would receive a financial reward for achieving their step goal).

In the first 6 months, the charity and cash groups, respectively, logged 21 and 29 more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per week compared with the control group. There was nominal difference in activity levels between the control and Fitbit groups.

After the 6-month mark, the incentives were removed, which resulted in a sharp decrease in weekly activity levels in the cash group. However, the Fitbit group and the charity group, respectively, logged 37 and 32 more minutes of MVPA than the control group through the end of the study.

While the intervention prompted increases in weekly activity levels, the researchers noted that benefits stopped there. “We identified no evidence of improvements in health outcomes, either with or without incentives, calling into question the value of these devices for health promotion,” the researchers stated.

They added that the cash group appeared to be the most successful while incentives were in play, which might inform how future programs are administered.

“Although other incentive strategies might generate greater increases in step activity and improvements in health outcomes, incentives would probably need to be in place long term to avoid any potential decrease in physical activity resulting from discontinuation.”

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