Posted on Feb 08, 2024, 5 p.m.
Recent estimates are that almost half of Americans are not reaching the weekly amount recommended for physical activity. This study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior from Brigham Young University (BYU) suggests a surprisingly simple way to help increase activity time: just put on a wearable activity/fitness monitor. The wearable doesn’t need to be expensive either, one can find a basic tracker online from $10 and up.
According to the researchers, those who wore a pedometer walked an average of 318 more steps per day compared to those not wearing one; even if the walkers had no specific fitness goal or incentive, and even when they could not see the step count displayed on the wearable.
“Humans are hardwired to respond to what is being measured because if it’s being measured, it feels like it matters,” said BYU Marriott School of Business professor Bill Tayler, an author of the paper. “When people go get an Apple Watch or a Fitbit, of course it’s going to affect their behavior; they obtained the device with the goal of walking more. But it’s helpful for individuals to know that even without trying, just being aware that something is tracking your steps increases your activity.”
Modest increases in physical activity have been shown to have cumulative effects/benefits, thus the findings may be useful to those in healthcare or businesses that have a vested interest in improving/protecting public health. For example, those working in the line of insurance may be interested to find out that if basic fitness trackers are handed out to people it would prompt them to walk more, as long as they wore them.
“We wanted to find out, absent goals and incentives, does simply tracking fitness change behavior? Until this study, no one had convincingly shown what we’ve shown — from an academic point of view, it turns out this is a super hard question to answer,” Tayler said.
Does being monitored affect activity/step counts? It is a hard question to answer because in order to do so you need to know how much people walked before putting on the pedometer, and how much they walked compared to another group of randomly selected people who also were not wearing a pedometer. Yet these baseline measurements require the use of a pedometer. To get this information, the researchers discovered that they needed to be creative, and they found a workaround using an iPhone’s default step-tracking feature that few people were aware existed when they began collecting data.
“It was a bit of a sneaky way to get the data we needed,” Tayler said.
90 participants were asked for permission to pull information from their phones at the beginning of the study, without telling them that their step counts from the weeks prior were being recorded to provide the elusive baseline measures of how much the participants were walking when not being actively monitored. Then, some of the participants were given a pedometer without a display to wear to keep the participants unaware of the study's purpose. After another two weeks, data was again accessed from the participant’s iPhones, and the analysis revealed that those wearing the pedometer had a higher step count.
“Measurement and tracking precede improvement,” said BYU graduate Christian Tadje, who spearheaded the research as a student working with the Healthcare Industry Research Collaborative. “If you want something to improve — for example, a key performance indicator in the workplace or a personal health goal — our study shows that you should consider tracking your progress.”
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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