Technology to deliver ‘reality check’ on fitness levels

Fitness is becoming even more high tech as companies invest in new systems to measure your health

Wed, Oct 23, 2013, 16:32

As I type this article there’s a little gadget the size of a pebble in my pocket. It’s tracking every move I make. Actually, it’s not. It probably won’t register that my fingers are whizzing around a keyboard, but when I stand up and walk over to put on the kettle, it will take note that I’m being lightly active.

Welcome to the world of wearable, sensor-based activity trackers. My one gives me updates on request during the day – how many steps I’ve taken, how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed and a number for how many calories I have burned off (more on that later). And if I want the full rundown, I can pore over my stats on an app or website.

Tracking activity to get moving
It seems intuitive that wearing an activity monitor would prompt you to make more of an effort to move around, to reach and beat targets of steps, stairs or calories. I feel it’s having that effect on me, but is there hard evidence to say such gadgets really change behaviours?

“The technology is very new, so there’s very little in the literature,” says Alan Donnelly, who is professor of exercise physiology at the University of Limerick. “But I think common sense says they probably are valuable. When you measure activity you get a much better handle on what you are doing, and that type of feedback is definitely the way of the future.”

Projects at UL are using wearable trackers to study levels of activity and sedentary behaviour in adolescent girls, as well as more specific clinical populations such as people with multiple sclerosis, back pain or rheumatoid arthritis.

“These are specific groups who can have problems getting enough physical activity,” says Donnelly. “Also people who are at risk of cardiovascular disease could be a target group that might benefit.”

Activity overestimated
One of the big advantages of wearing a tracker is that the numbers can offer a “reality check” for people about their activity levels, according to Donnelly.

“A lot of people overestimate how much physical activity they do, and very few people achieve the recommended 30 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous activity five or more days per week,” he says. “So I think these devices might serve as a bit of a reality check.”

That said, he notes that half the battle is getting people to the point where they will buy a tracker and clip it to themselves. “Once they are in the zone where they think they would like to monitor their physical activity, you are almost half way there in terms of improving activity levels,” he says.

But is everyone willing or able to invest in the higher-end gadgets? Couldn’t a cheap and cheerful pedometer also clock your steps each day?