Westmead study finds fitness trackers do help increase activity

Dr Liliano Laranjo is a medical doctor who works for the University of Sydney at Westmead Applied Research Centre

New research from the Westmead Applied Research Centre has found that using smartphone applications and activity trackers increases physical activity levels in adults without chronic disease.

Published today in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the study found that interventions involving smartphone apps and activity trackers increased participants’ physical activity by an average of 2000 steps per day, which is a level found to be associated with health benefits, such as lower risk for premature death.

This is the first analysis to summarise published randomised, controlled trials assessing the effect of current mobile applications and activity trackers on physical activity, in adults aged 18-65 years without chronic illness.

The study measured physical activity including daily step counts, minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, weekly days exercised, minutes per week of total physical activity, and a measure of oxygen uptake by the body during exercise.

Previous reviews in this area included older technologies, such as pedometers or accelerometers without automated and continuous self-monitoring and feedback, which does not reflect the technology currently being used by consumers.

Westmead Hospital cardiology Professor Clara Chow (left) and her research team were last year awarded a $1 million Google AI grant for their research into technology and public health. Read more

Recent data shows that 91 percent of Australians own a smartphone, 22 percent own a fitness tracker and around a quarter use a mobile website or app to monitor fitness levels (Mobile Consumer Survey’ 2019 from Deloitte).

“Our study is the first to show that activity trackers and mobile apps currently being used by consumers are indeed effective in improving physical activity, with an average increase of around 2000 steps per day,” said lead author Dr Liliana Laranjo from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health and Westmead Applied Research Centre (WARC).

“This level of increase has the potential to lower the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, as well as improve quality of life and reduce the risk of premature death.

“It is important to note that most interventions included other components in addition to the apps and trackers, such as text messaging. Indeed, we also found that some specific features of these interventions such as personalisation and text messaging, appear to be particularly effective in increasing physical activity.

“It’s crucial to increase population physical activity levels to prevent major chronic conditions, such as heart disease, so these results are valuable information for guiding the design and implementation of future physical activity interventions,” she said.

Co-author Associate Professor Melody Ding, epidemiologist and behavioural change scientist at the Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health said: “Given the wide and increasing reach of smartphones and trackers, even modest improvements in physical activity can lead to substantial health improvement at the population level.”  

“Interventions using smartphone apps or activity trackers seem promising from a clinical and public health perspective, promoting a significant increase in physical activity.

“These results are valuable to clinicians, who may prescribe physical activity and encourage the use of apps and trackers to support behavioural change.

Another recent study published by Associate Professor Ding in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that online interest in exercise was at an all-time high during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This increase of community interest in exercise together with support for behavioural change offered by fitness trackers presents a great opportunity to boost physical activity in the community.”

Westmead Applied Research Centre is a collaboration between the University of Sydney and Western Sydney Local Health District to improve population health in western Sydney by delivering world-class research and using digital health interventions and therapeutics.

It is one of four world-leading medical research institutes in the Westmead Health Precinct, one of Australia’s largest health, education, research, training and innovation precincts.