Wearable electronic activity monitors hold promise in helping people to improve their fitness by constantly monitoring their activities and bodily responses. This information is organized into companion computer programs and mobile apps.
But thus far, few studies have looked at whether fitness monitors actually help.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston analyzed 13 of these activity monitors, such as those made by Fitbit, Jawbone, or Nike, to compare how the devices and their companion apps work to motivate the wearer.
Investigators compared the similarities between the devices and the methods used by health care providers with their patients.
“Despite their rising popularity, little is known about how these monitors differ from one another, what options they provide in their applications and how these options may impact their effectiveness,” said Elizabeth Lyons, Ph.D., senior author.
“The feedback provided by these devices can be as, if not more, comprehensive than that provided by health care professionals.”
These devices improve on standard pedometers by measuring and providing feedback on several health/fitness dimensions including calories burned, type of exercise activity undertaken, sleep quality, and measurements of heart rate, skin sweat, and body temperature.
Many, including Jawbone, Fitbit, and Nike, have goal-setting and progress feedback, social support, and an array of easy-to-read charts and progress trackers based on the users’ individual goals.
The research team investigated commercially available activity monitors, including devices by Basis, BodyMedia, Misfit, Fitbug, Ibitz, Polar, and Withings.
Investigators compared the various tactics fitness devices incorporate to promote healthy behaviors. They also reviewed the functionality of several devices and how the apps can be used to support or follow the recommendations of health care professionals.
The researchers found that most of the interactive tools in these devices’ apps for goal setting, self- monitoring and feedback were in line with what health care professionals recommend for their patients.
The number of available app tools was similar to the amount of techniques used by health care professionals to increase their patients’ physical activity.
However, several tactics associated with successfully increasing physical activity were missing from the monitor systems, including action planning, instruction on how to do the behavior, commitment, and problem solving.
As might be expected, device selection is dependent on the user’s personal needs and preferences. In the end, the apps with the most features may not be as useful as those with fewer but more effective tools.
Individual success is also likely influenced by individual preferences and needs, such as the need for a waterproof monitor for swimming or a device with energy balance information including food logs, which may make them more suitable for weight loss attempts than systems that monitor activity and weight only.
Beyond the more typical uses for weight loss aids, electronic activity monitors may also be useful for patients when they are released from the hospital as a measure of recovery and quality of life.
The consistent, objective measures used by these monitors could help health care professionals identify at-risk individuals for secondary prevention and rehabilitation purposes.
“This content analysis provides preliminary information as to what these devices are capable of, laying a foundation for clinical, public health, and rehabilitation applications,” said Lyons.
“Future studies are needed to further investigate new types of electronic activity monitors and to test their feasibility, acceptability, and ultimately their public health impact.”
The study was recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.