From Pencils to Paper to Sleek Wearables

Monday, January 30, 2017

Activity Trackers in 2017

by Sarah Brownrigg

It’s difficult to turn on the television, open a magazine, or scroll through a blog without seeing advertisements on the latest activity trackers. These wearable devices have the ability to track steps walked, stairs climbed, calories burned, quality of sleep, heart rate, posture, and even the calmness of someone’s mind.

But how do you find the right device for you? And perhaps more interesting for me, what role can activity trackers play in rehabilitation?

As I began my research, I quickly discovered that there is a lack of evidence for the use of activity trackers in occupational therapy (OT). Much of the discussion focused on what OTs thought about their use, rather than their effectiveness as a part of treatment. There was more discussion; however, about their use in physiotherapy for things like cardiac rehab or gait assessments. And of the studies, most discuss step count, sleep, and calorie expenditure.

So what did I learn?

Most studies reported on Jawbone or Fitbit trackers, as they are among some of the most popular devices. Fitbit, in fact, is the more popular device of the two, likely because it has great, useful, and fairly intuitive app integration. While these devices are now able to track so much information, the bulk of the research for considering device use in rehabilitation was on  steps and sleep.

Jawbone and Fitbit’s strength lies in their ability to track steps and floors climbed. To increase the accuracy of the device, I recommend setting your stride length. The downside is, however, that neither of these devices are great at detecting atypical gait patterns, like those people with Parkinson’s or traumatic brain injury may have.

Accurately measuring sleep seemed to me like a dream come true. And it turns out, it may have to remain a dream until technology improves. Devices are poor at determining wakefulness, as well as overestimate total sleep time and sleep efficiency. In fact, their accuracy deteriorates with more disturbed sleep. This might not be a deal breaker for a user who is primarily concerned with activity;  however, if you have sleep difficulties you might want to consider removing the device at night. Typically, people with insomnia already overestimate how long it takes them to fall asleep and underestimate their total sleep time. Given the poor accuracy with disturbed sleep, reviewing the information from the tracker might perpetuate the negative beliefs/thoughts about sleep, which has been shown to be a contributing factor to the poor sleep experience.

The Role in Rehabilitation (and beyond)

Wanting to know more about what potential uses an activity tracker could have in functional rehabilitation, I bought one and started my own series of experiments.
Using a tracker could be a valuable tool in encouraging change, as the devices conveniently track the mundane aspects of daily activity without taking time and resources away from actually engaging in daily life. The vibrating alarms were really helpful when used as reminders (and weren’t dependent on having my phone on me at all times, which I really liked). I was even able to watch the impact of breathing and mindfulness by monitoring my heart rate during a nerve-wracking situation – talk about a powerful experience!
While some of the tracking mechanisms in the devices are not yet completely accurate, there were a number of things that I liked about activity trackers.
  • Whether you are recovering from injury, dealing with a chronic condition, or your average-Jane or Joe, lack of movement is not healthy for anyone. Inactivity alarms provide a discreet reminder to keep you moving throughout the day.
  • Social supports can connect you with friends to motivate one another – a proven technique to increase physical activity levels and make healthier lifestyle choices.
  • Breathing tracking and breathing sessions can help you remember to be mindful and calm in stressful situations

How do you find the right device for you?

There are many guides out there that aim to help you find the right device, so I want to cover some aspects that they don’t mention.

  1. Is it comfortable and do you like the look of it? If your answer to either of these is no – keep looking. Otherwise you will be the proud new owner of an expensive paperweight.
  2. What type of device are your friends/family using? – A really powerful part of the tool is the ability to draw from social support and see normative information about others’ behaviour.
  3. What  tech requirements does it have? – Do you need a tablet, smartphone, or other device to be able to use the tracker?
  4. Ask yourself what is your endgame. (E.g., Are you looking to get moving or do you need to learn to manage your stress?). Some devices are more effective at certain tasks than others which is something you will want to consider before making a purchase.

The Bottom Line

Activity tracking has come a long way from keeping a paper-journal or fitness log. The new wearables, combine function and style and make it easy to get a snapshot of activity levels. They are by no means perfect, but with new versions and software updates being released every year, I’m sure this is a technology that will become increasingly more precise and adopted by more and more people.

Research has identified techniques that increase physical activity levels and the tendency to engage in healthier lifestyle choices. Many of these trackers put these techniques at the user’s fingertips (or wrist in this case!). Activity trackers are a great tool for anyone, including clients, to get motivated and become more mindful of their day-to-day activities.