Smartphone-based activity and fitness apps are just as accurate as those found on dedicated wearable devices, and may be a more economical alternative for most people.

So says a team of researchers affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and Amherst College, which published its findings in a new research letter in JAMA. Researchers tested 10 of the top-selling smartphone apps and devices in the United States by having 14 participants walk on a treadmill for 500 and 1,500 steps, each twice (for a total of 56 trials), and then recording their step counts.

Also see: Wearable devices: Just a fad or the future of wellness?

Each of the study participants, all healthy adults recruited at Penn, had the following devices on during the treadmill trials:

  • Waistband: one pedometer and two accelerometers
  • Wrists: three wearable devices
  • Pants pockets: two smartphones, one running three apps and the other running one

At the end of each trial, step counts from each device were recorded. The data from the smartphones were only slightly different than the observed step counts (with a range of -6.7 to 6.2 percent relative difference in mean step count), but the data from the wearable devices differed more (with a range of -22.7 to -1.5 percent).
Also see: 5 reasons wearable wellness is here to stay

“Since step counts are such an important part of how these devices and apps measure physical activity, including calculating distance or calories burned, their accuracy is key,” said senior author Mitesh S. Patel, M.D.,assistant professor of Medicine and Health Care Management at Penn and an attending physician at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. “Compared to the one to two percent of adults in the U.S. that own a wearable device, more than 65 percent of adults carry a smartphone. Our findings suggest that smartphone apps could prove to be a more widely accessible and affordable way of tracking health behaviors.”

The article is available here.

Greg Goth writes for Health Data Management, a SourceMedia publication.

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