Using a wearable fitness tracker is linked to a boost in physical activity in overweight adults, as well as those with diabetes and heart disease, according to a new analysis published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Wearable fitness trackers are devices worn on the body — typically around the wrist or upper arm — that measure physical activity in some way, such as the amount of moderate to vigorous activity (using a device called an accelerometer) or steps taken (known as a pedometer). While these devices are often marketed as a way to boost your physical activity level, there isn’t a lot of data on whether this ends up being the case — especially for people with health conditions like diabetes or heart disease, who may face mobility limitations or other barriers to exercising. For the latest analysis, researchers looked at 38 clinical trials including a total of 4,203 participants who were randomly assigned either to wear, or not to wear, a fitness tracker.
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Fitness trackers linked to increased levels of physical activity
During an average of about 15 weeks of follow-up, wearing a fitness tracker — especially a step counter, which 29 of the 38 studies evaluated — was linked to increased levels of physical activity. This was particularly true when the intervention group also had a face-to-face interaction as part of the study, such as a consultation with a health care professional. Including men in a given study also made it more likely that wearing a fitness tracker would lead to increased physical activity. Even in studies without a face-to-face component, using a step counter was linked to increased physical activity, but studies that used other types of devices didn’t show a significant boost in physical activity, with or without a face-to-face component.
Overall, interventions involving a fitness tracker were also linked to significant improvements in blood glucose levels. Step counters also made the biggest difference for this outcome, while there was no link between using an accelerometer-based device and improved blood glucose in five studies. The researchers found no effect from fitness tracker interventions on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, or body weight.
In most of the studies included in the analysis, participants were prescribed a fitness tracker by their doctor as part of a management plan for their chronic health conditions. It’s unclear whether similar benefits could be achieved by wearing a device such as a step counter without a doctor’s recommendation or guidance, and the sense of accountability that often comes with this relationship. What is clear is that the type of activities that step counters are intended to promote — moderate-paced to brisk walking or dancing — are a form of aerobic activity that may carry wide-ranging health benefits in people with diabetes or heart disease. As noted in a UPI article on the study, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that most adults engage in at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.
The researchers noted that while the studies in their analysis showed that wearing a fitness tracker increased physical activity, this increase typically wasn’t enough to reach recommended activity levels. More research is needed to explore ways that wearable devices could potentially be combined with other interventions to help people with conditions like diabetes and heart disease meet activity recommendations.
Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”