Apps Are Just as Accurate as Wearables, According to a New Study

Image courtesy of Jason Howie.

Image courtesy of Jason Howie.

Before you drop hundreds of dollars on the latest wearable consider this: smartphones are just as effective at tracking physical activity as wearables, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania compared the step count accuracy of popular smartphone applications and wearable devices. They discovered that the smartphone apps were able to detect step count within a -6.7 percent to 6.2 percent difference. Wearables were a little less impressive with a -22.7 percent to -1.5 percent difference. However, it looks like that -20 percent error was an outlier due to one device unnamed by the researchers in the online brief.

As the research shows, downloading an activity tracking app may be the way to go for someone who is interested in tracking their physical activity but doesn’t want to spend the money on an expensive device or constantly wear a band around.

Do you want to accurately track your activity without using a band? Here are the apps the researchers looked at:

  • Fitbit (iOS) – Fitbit has both a wearable band and an app. Even without the band, the app can provide basic activity feedback like steps taken and has relatively good reviews on the App Store.
  • Health Mate (iOS) – Health Mate uses the iPhone’s own capabilities to accurately measure sleep and activity. It also has relatively good reviews on the App Store.
  • Moves (iOs and Android)- Moves is always on and able to track any walking, running or cycling you do. It also connects with other apps to provide a more seamless tracking experience. It has relatively good reviews on the App Store and Google Play store.

You can read the article online at JAMA’s website.

Must Reads:
Why I have a love/hate relationship with my Up by Jawbone
Wearables – Now You Can Try ‘Em Before You Buy ‘Em
The Wearable to Keep You Safe in the Sun

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4 thoughts on “Apps Are Just as Accurate as Wearables, According to a New Study

  1. Matt Walker says:

    Interesting. I still feel like the chest strap with heart rate sensors, which transmits an accurate heart rate signal to smartphone, is the best way to get an accurate calorie burn figure. I’m a skeptic when it comes to these newer wrist bands and smartphone apps that claim to monitor all sorts of stuff (sleep quality, calories burned etc..). The only thing I’ll say that those devices probably could get accurate would be step count, because it’s based on vibration of each step. I would need more evidence before I’d buy it, but I haven’t sought that out yet. I was tempted when a new fitbit came out last year but I waited and it wasn’t long after that I read an article (I believe on CNET) about how bad the accuracy was when tested.

    • crunchtheory says:

      I think being skeptical about wearables is a good thing. They’re not regulated, so companies can make unfounded claims about their accuracy, and the scientific literature is still catching up to see if they’re true or not. But what does seem to be agreed upon though is that just being conscious of food intake and activity levels can give you health benefits, whether you use an app, wearable, or something else. 🙂 I personally use the original Jawbone Up, but that just broke and am considering getting another one.

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