Researchers looked at data from 121 randomized control trials and 141 study comparisons to find what impact exercise monitors — like those found on phone apps and Fitbits — had on everyday physical activity, moderate and vigorous physical activity, and sedentary time, according to the study.

Using fitness apps increased everyday physical activity by an equivalent of 1,235 steps a day, and moderate and vigorous physical activity by 48.5 minutes a week, research showed. The impact on sedentary time was insignificant, according to the study.

“People who use activity monitors and wearables are more active than people that do not,” said Rasmus Tolstrup Larsen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s department of public health.

“These effects are highly relevant in terms of health and risk of diseases, especially among people who are only moderately active or do not meet current guidelines for physical activity,” he said via email. Larsen is also a management consultant at IQVIA Healthcare.

The efficacy of fitness monitors has been a commonly investigated question since they hit the market, but this study takes the largest comprehensive look to date, Larsen said.

And it comes as many people are looking to get moving again during a pandemic that has created conditions encouraging more sedentary behavior.

“In a post-covid time, the need for focus on behavioural change in relation to physical activity and inactivity is as urgent as ever before,” Larsen said via email. “Modern physical activity monitors (wearables, smart watches or fitness-trackers) have the potential to be used as facilitators for behavioural change, providing direct feedback on activity to the user.”

While the study is “careful and useful,” it does raise further questions, said Dr. David Asch, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for Health Care Innovation. He said he would have liked to see an analysis as well of how the different trials the study examined used rewards and incentives.

Using a fitness tracker can increase exercise and daily activity, according to the study.

How to use them better

If you are hoping 2022 will be a more active year than those that came before, Larsen recommended looking into a monitoring device — or using the ones available on your smartphone.

“The devices are cheap, simple, and innovative. Now we can safely say that they are effectively motivating people for more activity in a safe way,” Larsen added.

But an activity monitor alone may not be your best bet for success, said Dr. Mitesh Patel, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president for clinical transformation at Ascension, a private health care system.

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“Changing behavior is always hard,” said Patel, who was not involved in the study. “Using an activity monitor, like the ones available within smartphones and other devices, can be an important part of efforts to increase physical activity.”

Other research in the field suggests that they work even better when combined with programs aimed at changing behavior, like adding elements that make the behavior more like a game or leveraging financial or social incentives, Patel said.

What these tracking apps do add is a level of personal accountability, said Dana Santas, a CNN fitness contributor and mind-body coach for professional athletes.

It doesn’t even have to be electronic, she added. Using a notebook or any physical reminder tends to embody our conscience.

And a little competition with yourself never hurts, Santas said.

“When my Apple Watch sends me a message saying, ‘you can still make it happen,’ it motivates me to make whatever happen that my watch is telling me I haven’t done yet, like reaching 10,000 steps or spending more time standing,” Santas said.

Making goals, adding incentives and adding in some accountability with a physical activity tracker may be what it takes to get you moving again, the experts agreed.

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