Why Apps Might Be Just as Good as Wearables for Tracking Steps

Wearables vs. Smartphones: Which Is More Accurate?

Photo: Pond5

Can’t afford a $300 tracking device to record your steps? Turns out you might not need to shell out the big bucks just to hit your daily goal of 10,000 paces per day.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that smartphone apps could be just as accurate as wearable devices, and comparable to pedometers and accelerometers, when it comes to tallying your strides.

“Much of the attention goes to wearable devices,” study author Mitesh S. Patel, MD, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says. “But, more than 65 percent own a smartphone and carry it most of the day when walking around and doing activities.” Which begs the question: Are we tapping into its full potential?

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How Accurate Is Your Smartphone, Really?

In his technology showdown, Patel and his team decided to test the accuracy of 10 step-tracking devices, including a range of apps, wearables, a pedometer and two accelerometers. The tech gear that was tested included the:

  • Moves Apps (on Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5s phones)
  • Health Mate App (on the iPhone 5s)
  • FitBit App (on the iPhone 5s)
  • Nike Fuelband
  • Jawbone UP25
  • Fitbit Flex
  • Fitbit One
  • Fitbit Zip
  • Digi-Walker SW-200

In the small study, the researchers asked 14 volunteers to wear all 10 devices at once, and then walk on a treadmill for 500 steps and 1,500 steps, two times each. Once they hit their step goal, they climbed off the treadmill and the researchers compared the results for each tracker.

The Digi-Walker SW-200 pedometer and the FitBit Zip and FitBit One accelerometer devices proved the most accurate at counting steps. Patel notes that the Digi-Walker SW-200’s accuracy has been validated by other research studies, as well. “Pedometers have been the gold standards used for decades, but one of the challenges is that people aren’t walking around with their pedometers,” Patel says.

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Among the other devices, the results were more varied. “For the most part we found these were all fairly accurate and good for what the average individual wanted to do,” Patel says. However, they noted that the accuracy of the smartphone apps in the study was comparable to, and at times even better than, the accuracy of some of the more expensive wearable devices tested.

“If they have a smartphone, they can download a free app and start tracking steps within minutes.”

Case in point: The variability in accuracy between the smartphone apps and the observed step count was measured at a 6 percent relative difference in mean step count, which is “very close,” according to Patel. However, the wearable devices showed more of a range. One device, the Nike FuelBand, differed from the observed step count by more than 20 percent.

While the researchers aren’t sure why the wearable devices didn’t appear to be as consistently accurate, Patel notes, “One question is whether the location of the devices makes a difference. Wearables you tend to wear on your wrist, while smartphones are in people’s pockets, which is where the natural movement is occurring in the hips.” The small number of participants in the study, and the limited scope of devices tested, are also both limitations that should be considered when analyzing the study’s results.

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Stepping Up Your Fitness Game

In short, if you’ve been putting off setting a daily physical activity goal because you can’t afford a tracker — don’t let that hold you back. “The key takeaway is that for the average individual who just wants to gauge if they are getting enough activity, any of these devices will do,” Patel says. “If they have a smartphone, they can download a free app and start tracking steps within minutes, a lot of times at no cost.”

Though only three apps were tested in this study, Patel says that many step-tracking apps use the same technology, so users should find the one that works best for them. “The second thing to keep in mind is…it’s a good first step that these are accurate but we need to combine these devices with appropriate engagement strategies.”

Patel and his team are in the midst of several clinical trials to test how tracking devices can be used in combination with social and financial incentives to encourage people to lose weight and get healthy. “Once we figure out the best engagement strategy, we can apply it to other devices, whether we’re helping people to remember to take medicine, manage weight loss, or sleep more.”