In a new review study, researchers found that smartphone fitness apps and wearable activity trackers do help boost physical activity levels.
The size of the effect is small to moderate, but it may be worth offering them on prescription to motivated patients, given the importance for the health of increasing daily physical activity by any amount.
The research was conducted by a team at the University of Sydney and elsewhere.
Globally, more than a quarter of adults don’t meet recommended physical activity levels. Physical inactivity represents a leading cause of death worldwide and is thought to cost billions of dollars every year.
Some of the most effective strategies to increase physical activity include behavior change techniques, such as self-monitoring and feedback, which smartphone apps and wearable activity trackers can provide.
Smartphone ownership is widespread, with activity trackers and fitness apps used by around a third of US and UK adults.
But the reviews to date of these apps and trackers haven’t produced consistent findings. Nor have they focused on healthy adults and on state-of-the-art technology.
In the study, the researchers trawled research databases looking for relevant studies published between January 2007 and January 2020, involving healthy 18 to 65-year-olds with no long term conditions.
They found 35 suitable comparative studies, involving a total of 7454 people, 2107 (28%) of whom were women. The intervention period lasted between 2 and 40 weeks, averaging 13 weeks.
Pooling the data from 28 of these studies showed that compared with other approaches, smartphone apps or activity trackers increased physical activity by an average of 1850 steps a day.
Seven further analyses of the data also showed that smartphone apps and activity trackers strongly increased physical activity levels.
The apps and tracker programs that also included text-messaging involving prompts and cues, and tailored features, were more effective.
And certain components, such as goal setting, planning, and tasks graded by degree of difficulty, were strongly linked to greater levels of effectiveness.
The team says interventions using smartphone apps or activity trackers seem promising from a clinical and public health perspective, promoting a significant step count increase of 1850 steps/day.
These results are very important, according to recent evidence showing that any physical activity, regardless of intensity, is linked to lower mortality risk and that an increase of 1700 steps/day is strongly linked to lower death risk.
One author of the study is Liliana Laranjo.
The study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
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