Fitness trackers close, but not close enough, to be utilized properly in exercise research

Fitness wearables might be good for tracking daily activity but they lack complex functions needed to properly contribute to research. In a new report, published in Progress in Preventive Medicine, researchers suggested how fitness trackers can improve to contribute to research on the benefits of exercise.

Even with the added food diaries and step-tracking technology provided by wearables, they are unable to provide complex measurements needed for extensive research into applying exercise data to researchers. This report reviewed current wearable technologies and identified potential improvements to providing data.

"Advances in the development of objective monitoring devices such as accelerometers have spurred hopes of defining more accurately the relationships between habitual physical activity and chronic disease," stated Roy J. Shephard, MD, PhD, of the University of Toronto.

The report reviewed 12 studies using accelerometers, step counters and other fitness technologies to pinpoint areas of improvement. While these technologies showed potential, they lacked details needed in formal studies. Previously, researchers used questionnaires to gauge a participant’s effort within the study. But with fitness trackers, the data is collected through the technology.

While these measurements include number of daily steps, they do not account for intensity or other activities like biking or weight-lifting. These missing measures affect study outcomes. Until fitness trackers account for every type of exercise, researchers are unable to answer questions regarding the best “dose” of exercise.   

"Future technical developments [will] allow larger scale longitudinal objective studies, with a greater realization of the potential inherent in objective monitoring,” concluded Shephard.