Fitness Trackers: Helping Doctors Measure More Than Just Steps

July 15, 2016





             I’ve always been an active person, and this past year for my birthday, I got my very own fitness tracker, a Fitbit Flex. I wasn’t quite sure how much I would use it, but as it turns out, it’s my newest obsession. Not only does it allow me to track my physical activity (PA), but also my food and water consumption, which motivates me to hydrate and work to increase my activity levels in order to meet my PA goals. Fitness trackers are great at measuring all of the above items, but what if we used them to measure more? How would it change healthcare if healthcare providers routinely began measuring one’s health by utilizing these trackers as an assessment tool? As we move into a society that becomes ever more dependent upon technology, it only makes sense that healthcare providers would as well. As a current medical student trying to navigate the ins and outs of healthcare within the 21st century, I believe that fitness trackers will be key to a more personalized, modern approach to medicine.

             An article that I read recently on discussed a study that compared various fitness trackers: the Omron HJ-112, Fitbit One, Fitbit Flex, and Jawbone UP. The Omron device and Fitbit One were worn on the hip, and the Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex were worn on the wrist.  They also utilized a tracker that is worn on the ankle, the StepWatch, as a comparison. Participants in the study were older adults, age 62 and older, and had varying ambulation levels, including non-impaired, impaired, cane users and walker-users. The participants wore their specified fitness trackers and were then simultaneously asked to perform a 100-meter self-paced walking test. All of the devices tested underestimated participant’s steps, with the Fitbit Flex having the greatest margin of error- about 27% in those with non-impaired ambulation. The other trackers underestimated participants with non-impaired ambulation by less than 5%. However, the main aim of the study was to determine if fitness trackers were accurate in those with impaired ambulation: cane-users or walker-users. The study revealed that the step count was underestimated by less than 5% in those with impaired ambulation. For those with diminished ambulation, the step count was surprisingly more accurate in every fitness tracker except the Jawbone Up, when compared to the participants with non-impaired ambulation. The FitBit Flex was still the most inaccurate, underestimating the step count by 16%.

            As we begin to see trackers with enhanced accuracy and advancements in technology, perhaps fitness trackers could be of more use in a clinical setting. What’s promising in this study is that although your step counts may be underestimated depending on the tracker you use, there are some that are fairly accurate, and accurate for those with impaired ambulation! As the trackers begin to enhance their capabilities, such as monitoring not only steps, but also heart rate, blood pressure, and nutrition they will be of more use, especially in the elderly. If the devices were to become easier to integrate into major healthcare corporations’ electronic medical records systems, I think they would have more use as an assessment tool. As the devices grow more sophisticated, I’m certain we will begin to see more assimilation of them into practice. This would prove to be especially useful in post-op surgical patients and the elderly, where adequate PA levels as well as overall health is crucial to healing and aging in place.

            Integrating fitness tracker assessments into the healthcare record not only moves us more towards personalized medicine, but is also treating patients more holistically. Utilizing fitness trackers as a tool to gauge patient’s PA levels and other measures allows physicians to be more interactive with patients, which perhaps may lead to better outcomes. It has already been shown that healthcare providers giving advice and counseling to patients regarding activity levels promotes PA and leads to increased exercise. So why not take it a step further? The benefit of being able to view objective PA assessments may prove to be more useful than patient questionnaires and surveys, as they can be laden with bias. As our technology advances, I believe that healthcare providers will begin to use these types of devices more frequently in order to achieve a more accurate view of the patient: their PA levels, nutrition, heart rate, and sleep habits among others. The trackers vary in price, some as cheap as $30, and with developments, if they were able to lower the cost, they could be used widely. Fitness trackers have also proven to be useful as a supplement in various weight loss programs. If physicians utilize these tools available to them, I believe all parties will benefit.  With Fitness trackers, the possibilities of use are truly endless:  weight loss programs, rehabilitation facilities, and supplemental PA tools for the elderly. As for me, I will continue to wear my tracker daily, motivating me to move just a little more.


Keywords: fitness tracker, physical activity, elderly, technology, healthcare provider




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