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The Rise of the (Health) Machines: Do Fitness Trackers Work?

When you see someone look down at his or her wrist, the person may not be checking a watch. The fact of the matter is that there are dozens of devices you can wear on your wrist today to track your every move, ultimately trumping the standard watch.

Take the Fitbit Flex, for instance. This piece of wearable technology can tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories you’ve burned, and how much sleep you’ve had. All you need to do is put it on your wrist, sync it with your mobile device, and you have access to critical data about your body.

Today, Fitbit has its fair share of competitors and for good reason – more people are becoming interested in their personal health. Whether you’re a fan of the Fitbit Flex or the Jawbone Up, technology companies are working hard to give you the information you want about your body.

The Rise of the Fitness Tracker

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of fitness trackers is that you don’t have to be a health nut to get into them. Consumers are primarily concerned with satisfaction, and there’s no better way to get it than viewing 10,000 steps notched on a fitness device.

A report released by Juniper Research in November 2014 showed that approximately 60 million fitness trackers will be in use by 2018. The authors of the report believe that this is because of the two key types of fitness trackers on the market – those that are affordable and accessible to the greater public, and those that offer features which go beyond fitness (e.g., mobile device notifications). 

Whether a consumer is ready to spend big bucks or simply wants a budget-friendly wearable, there is an option out there to suit each need.

The Sacrifice of Accuracy

Creators of products like the Fitbit Flex tell you that you need to wear their device as often as possible to receive the most accurate results. In turn, the products themselves are typically waterproof, dust-proof and ready to withstand every day wear-and-tear.

But does the average fitness tracker deliver in terms of accuracy?

study published in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2014 looked at how various fitness trackers perform and deliver accurate results. Researchers from Iowa State University examined eight different models – the BodyMedia FIT, Fitbit Zip, Fitbit One, Jawbone Up, Actigraph, Directlife, Nike Fuel Band and Basis Band. The goal was to determine how accurate each model was in terms of calories burned by the user.

“People buy these activity monitors assuming they work, but some of them are not that accurate or have never been tested before,” said Gregory Welk, Professor of Kinesiology at Iowa State University and study researcher. “These companies just produce a nice-looking device with a fancy display and people buy it.”

To test the devices, 30 men and 30 women wore all eight monitors during a 69-minute workout session. The workout included 13 different activities, including typing and playing sports on the Wii game console.

Welk said that a majority of the devices that were analyzed had a reasonable margin of error between 10 and 15 percent. The top-performing device was the BodyMedia FIT, which had a 9.3 percent error rating. The Fitbit Zip (10.1 percent) and Fitbit One (10.4 percent), two of the more popular products on the fitness tracker market, were in second and third place.

Welk went on to state that while fitness trackers may have only been used by researchers in the past, they have evolved into motivational tools for consumers. However, he notes that companies that develop these products cannot guarantee accuracy.

“The point that a lot of people miss is that they think these devices will solve their activity problems and make them active on their own,” Welk continued. “The device can be a nudge or a prompt, but it is not going to make them more active unless they change their behavior and learn from their experience. A $25 pedometer is as good of a behavioral change tool as a Fitbit.”

The Impact on the Medical Industry

The Pew Research Foundation released data in 2013 that showed 69 percent of Americans track some form of health-related information, and 21 percent of them use a digital device to do so. Furthermore, 60 percent of Americans say that they track their weight, diet or exercise routine.

It’s this type of information that may have a significant impact on the pharmaceutical and medical industries in the future. Although medical professionals are still collecting data through traditional sources of research, tracking devices that log personal health information may soon fill in critical gaps. In turn, the health industry may become more robust, containing complete pictures of patients’ well-being.

Eric Topol, chief academic officer of Scripps Health, recently spoke to the Wall Street Journal about how he sees the health care landscape evolving over the next 20 years.

“Hospitals, except for certain key functions like intensive-care units and operating rooms, will be completely transformed to data-surveillance centers,” Topol told the news source. “People will look back and laugh about the old physical office visit and the iconic ‘stethoscope’ along with the way so much of health care was rendered in the pre-digital era."

Furthermore, Topol went onto say that he sees wearable technology as a critical part of the industry, even more so than it is now.

"In 20 years, humans will finally attain the status of cars for their medical care,” Topol continued. “They'll have wearable and embeddable sensors with predictive analytics, and, most importantly, autonomous driving capabilities.”

Whether or not any of these predictions will come true is something that only time can tell. However, one thing is certain – people are increasingly becoming obsessed with their health, and it’s likely a good thing.

We have our fair share of fitness fanatics at PharmiWeb Solutions and they seem to fall into two categories: ‘old school’ with no devices, and the ‘fully connected’ with wearables hooked up to websites like Strava.

Approximately 46 percent of people who track their activities say that it has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health. Are you one of these individuals?

How can wearables help your business? Contact us to find some answers..

31st March 2015