Tools and toys, gizmos and gadgets – no matter how old we are we can’t resist the lure of those devices designed to make our lives easier, happier or better in some way.
From simple pedometers that count steps to state-of-the-art digital or electronic devices and applications that track activity, heart rate, eating and sleeping patterns and more, mobile/wearable technologies continue to be popular. People buy them to lose weight, increase strength and endurance, eat well – in short, live better and longer. But while they may not be frivolous, do they really help?
That’s important to know, particularly as wearable technologies are now being used in healthcare to help people manage chronic diseases and conditions that put them at increased health risk (1). So far, much of the research has explored the benefits of these tools for specific populations such as older adults (2), or people who are overweight and at a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoarthritis (3, 4).
One such systematic review looked at the results of seven studies with a total of 584 adults who were overweight or obese, all of whom were counselled about diet and exercise to help them lose weight (5). Some participants were also given mobile devices (e.g. pager, mobile phone, etc.) and received motivational messages and/or recorded what they ate and how much they exercised. At the end of the study period (which ranged from nine weeks to a year) the researchers measured how much weight these participants had lost compared to people who had not used a mobile device.
So, does the technology work? There was consistent and strong evidence that – at least in the short term – these devises encourage exercise and activity that leads to greater weight loss. Only one of the studies, however, reported weight loss after one year so it isn’t clear if there are long-term benefits.
Another review looked at the benefits of mobile devices for people with type-2 diabetes, and whether they encouraged people to exercise. The review included 24 randomized controlled trials and close to 3,000 participants aged 47 to 70 (6). One group in each study received one-on-one counselling and set goals for physical activity, then used some type of mobile device (pedometers, accelerometers, etc.) to monitor their activity. They were compared with participants receiving the usual care, as well as information and/or encouragement to exercise. Studies lasted an average of 31 weeks (7-8 months long).
Once again, wearable technology helped to get people moving: participants using the devices recorded more steps per day, spent more time walking and exercising, and expended more energy. This group also had small but notable improvements in blood sugar levels, body mass index (BMI), and blood pressure.
What the research tells us
At least in the short term, mobile or wearable digital devices appear to help people exercise more and lose weight. More research is needed to find out if people stick to their goals in the long term.
Counselling, goal setting, motivation and support were central to both sets of studies - an activity monitor/device appears to be a useful part of a weight loss and fitness plan once people understand the importance of exercise, and are clear about what they want to achieve.
This research evidence is welcome news for us gadget fans, as it helps justify what can be a relatively expensive purchase. That is - of course - as long as we actually wear and use it as intended... not let it become another addition to the junk drawer!
Not into gadgets, or want another type of motivation to get fit and active? Read more here about the benefits of walking groups.
Want to know more? Watch our public talk: Wearable Technologies for Optimal Aging