Are Wearable Fitness Trackers Making Us Healthier?


Scott Henderson

Wearable fitness trackers and smartwatches are an undeniably big business, with a decade-long category increase of 1500 per cent resulting in a $2.8 billion dollar spend by consumers in 2020 alone. And whilst models at the higher end of the smartwatch spectrum provide a multitude of bio-feedback data, such as heart rate, step counts, blood oxygen levels, oh… and telling the time, it’s often unclear exactly how effective all this data is in nudging us towards a healthier lifestyle. Until now. 

An Australian team of researchers from the University of South Australia have put scientific principles to use to answer a question many of us have pondered; are fitness trackers worth the investment? 

According to the findings, the answer is a resounding ‘YES’. The South Australia review, published in Lancet Digital Health, suggests that fitness trackers, pedometers and smart watches encourage users to walk up to and average of 40 more minutes every day. This is the equivalent of 1800 more steps every day, or 655,200 extra steps each year. 

To reach their glowing endorsement, the team from South Australia reviewed data from 400 studies across the world, encompassing almost 164,000 participants from trials conducted wearing activity trackers. 

“The overall results from the studies we reviewed shows that wearable activity trackers are effective across all age groups and for long periods of time,” said lead researcher and PhD candidate Ty Ferguson. “They encourage people to exercise on a regular basis, to make it part of their routine and to set goals to lose weight.” 

The already positive results also identified an average 1-kilogram weight loss in activity tracker wearers over a period of five months, an unexpected discovery that came as a pleasant surprise to Professor Carol Maher who co-authored the review. 

“Bearing in mind these were not weight loss studies, but lifestyle physical activity studies, so we wouldn’t expect dramatic weight loss,” Professor Maher says. 

Although 1kg doesn’t seem like a huge deal, perspective puts the results in a new light, as according to the statistics the average person gains about half a kilogram every year. 

Obesity is a major concern in Australia, and the new study could inform health initiatives in the near future that promote increased physical activity in the population and the associated health benefits. 

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare suggests that two thirds of the adults are overweight or obese, with the Institute identifying that these figures are still rising. 

Health complications and diseases that result from obesity are well documented, however the problem also extends to the economy. Rises in obesity are costing the country $8.6 billion dollars due to the most recent figures released all the way back in 2011-12. And given that obesity rates are still on the rise, this is probably an extremely conservative figure for 2022. 

And whilst the physical benefits of regular exercise are well known, it’s the mental benefits of increased physical exercise that Ferguson also hopes to effect with their research. Whether it’s stress, anxiety, mild depression or frustration, regular exercise is medically backed for your brain. 

“The other reported benefit is that WATs [wearable activity trackers] improved depression and anxiety through an increase in physical activity,” Ferguson says. 

Scott Henderson

Please note: Scott's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

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