PROVO, Utah — If you’re looking to walk more on a daily basis, consider wearing a fitness tracker. New research from Brigham Young University finds that simply wearing one – even if you don’t look at it – may increase time spent walking.
More specifically, researchers report subjects who wore a fitness tracker walked an average of 318 more steps per day than those without one. Interestingly, this held true even if the subjects weren’t working toward a particular fitness goal or incentive, and even when they couldn’t see the step count the pedometer kept.
“Humans are hardwired to respond to what is being measured because if it’s being measured, it feels like it matters,” says study co-author and BYU Marriott School of Business professor Bill Tayler in a university release. “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.”
A little bit of exercise can go a long way toward better health, of course. Researchers say their work may prove useful to those in the healthcare industry or businesses with a vested interest in public health. “If I were an insurance executive, I’d be interested to know that you can hand out basic fitness trackers to people, and as long as they put them on, they’re going to walk more,” Tayler explains.
Putting fitness trackers to the test
To research how being monitored affected people’s step counts, study authors developed an ingenious experiment design. “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,” Prof. Tayler continues.
In order to establish that people tend to walk more while wearing a pedometer, researchers needed to know how much people were walking before they had the fitness tracker or how much pedometer users walk in comparison to another group of randomly selected people not wearing one. Both of those scenarios, however, require the use of a fitness tracker to attain baseline measurements. To workaround this issue researchers used the iPhone’s default step tracking feature.
“It was a bit of a sneaky way to get the data we needed,” Prof. Tayler adds.
To start, researchers asked all 90 study participants to grant them permission to access data on their smartphones. But, participants weren’t actually told that their step counts from the weeks prior were being recorded. This provided the aforementioned baseline measurements covering how much participants typically walked when they weren’t being actively monitored.
Some participants were then given fitness trackers without a display, while the rest were kept in the dark about the study’s true purpose. After two weeks had passed, step count data was accessed once again from the subjects’ iPhones.
“Measurement and tracking precede improvement,” adds 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.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Health Behavior.