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About one in five people has a smart watch or fitness tracker, according to a recent survey. These wrist-worn monitors are a handy way to track your daily steps, and they’re probably more accurate than the tally from your smartphone, which you might not carry with you every waking moment. Most wearable gadgets also offer an array of other data, such as your heart rate, walking pace, and more.
But does using one affect how active people are? According to the largest study to date on the topic, the answer is yes (see “Fitness trackers and activity levels: What’s the evidence?”). Regular physical activity is vital for a healthy heart, and the improvements seen in this study could potentially make a difference, says Dr. Megan Wasfy, a cardiologist at the Cardiovascular Performance Laboratory at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was close to 50 extra minutes per week, which is one-third of the 150 minutes recommended by the federal activity guidelines,” says Dr. Wasfy. The extra 1,200 daily steps taken when people were wearing trackers is about the same number that’s been linked to a longer life in several studies. While 10,000 steps has long been touted as a daily goal, research suggests that 8,000 steps a day is nearly as effective longevity-wise, particularly in older populations.
The key, however, is to keep being physically active throughout your life, Dr. Wasfy says. Because many of the studies in the review lasted just a few months, it’s impossible to know whether wearing a fitness tracker will promote lasting change in a person’s behavior, she adds. And using a fitness tracker to change behavior requires a few more steps than simply being active — you also have to remember to keep the tracker charged, wear it consistently, and check your data.
Many people who might be motivated to use these devices are already regular exercisers, Dr. Wasfy points out. Such people tend to use them to step up their program or train for a race, rather than to transition from being mostly sedentary to more active. But if you’re in that latter camp, a fitness tracker can be a useful tool, says Dr. Wasfy. “For people who are motivated to start exercising more, sometimes the day-to-day feedback on their progress helps keep them engaged,” she says.
To see how feedback from wearable fitness trackers affects exercise and activity levels, a team of Danish researchers reviewed and analyzed the evidence to date.
They identified 121 separate studies involving a total of nearly 17,000 mostly healthy adults ages 18 to 65. The median age of the participants was 47, and most were women. The median duration of the study intervention periods was 12 weeks.
Researchers found that on average, using physical activity monitors led people to take an extra 1,235 steps per day and do 49 additional minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week. They also stood for an extra 10 minutes per day, although that amount wasn’t significant. The study was published Jan. 26, 2022, in The BMJ.
Activity monitors contain various sensors to track your movement and other health parameters. One basic feature is a sensor that shines a light through the skin to detect blood flow, revealing your heart rate. Another is the accelerometer, which tracks movement and velocity and enables the device to count steps. For people who want extra detail to help boost their performance, a global positioning satellite (GPS) sensor provides a more accurate assessment of your speed, distance, and pace during a walk, run, or ride.
For the average person, being able correlate how intensely you’re exercising with your heart rate can be interesting, although it’s certainly not mandatory, Dr. Wasfy says. If you’re not interested in using a fitness tracker, the old-school “talk test” is an easy way to gauge exercise intensity. During moderate-intensity exercise, you should still be able to speak in full sentences but unable to sing.
However, if you’ve recently recovered from a heart attack or heart surgery or if you have other heart issues, you may need to monitor your exercise intensity more closely, and the heart rate function on a fitness tracker offers an easy way to do that. “High-intensity exercise may come with some added risk, so ask your doctor about a heart rate goal that makes sense for you,” she advises.
Image: © Belinda Howell/Getty Images
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter
Deepak L. Bhatt, M.D., M.P.H, Former Editor in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Exercise & Fitness
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What can improve your mood, boost your ability to fend off infection, and lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and colon cancer? The answer is regular exercise. It may seem too good to be true, but it's not. Hundreds of studies demonstrate that exercise helps you feel better and live longer. Starting to Exercise answers many important questions about physical activity. It will also help guide you through starting and maintaining an exercise program that suits your abilities and lifestyle.
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IBD and LGBTQ+: How it can affect sexual health