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Wearable activity trackers: Do they help health and wellness?

The attention given Apple's new smartwatch and Health app has brought the debate center stage over whether wearable activity trackers conform to best evidence-based practices—and whether they work as promised. Authors of a just-published study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research concluded that many trackers do use evidence-based behavior techniques. But they remained unsure about whether those techniques effectively translate to better health and wellness.

The researchers examined 13 wearable activity trackers and their accompanying smartphone applications, including popular products from companies like Jawbone, Nike and Withings, and categorized them according to their adherence to 93 evidence-based behavior change techniques such as “prompt review of behavioral goals” and “provid[ing] instruction.”

The three systems that utilized the most behavior change techniques came from the brands Jawbone (27 out of 93), Fitbit (20 out of 93) and Nike (19 out of 93).

But the researchers cautioned that not too much should necessarily be read into the raw number of techniques used. “A system with fewer but more effective techniques may ultimately produce a greater impact than a system with more numerous but less effective ones,” they wrote.

Once isolated to the 14 most-effective techniques, the researchers argued that the devices generally did well. Nevertheless, they were disappointed by the lack of instruction on how to perform and continue to practice desired behaviors.

While the researchers said more study is needed into the efficacy of activity tracker use, others are more skeptical about the buzz surrounding the devices. For instance, a January 2014 paper from design consultancy Endeavour Partners argued that wearable companies need to further embrace the “complex science of behavior change and habit formation.” The paper added that poor performance in one design dimension can doom the overall performance of and engagement with a device.

Users often quickly stop using such activity trackers, the paper pointed out. A September 2013 survey conducted by Endeavour found that approximately 20% of users dropped out of the practice after three months.

Follow Darius Tahir on Twitter: @dariustahir


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