June 28, 2019

Is your Fitbit actually boosting your health? A new study offers hope.

Daily Briefing

    Study participants who were randomly assigned to receive a pedometer and behavioral support were, several years later, more active and at lower risk for heart attack, stroke, and bone fractures, according to a study published in PLOS Medicine on Tuesday.

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    About the study

    To determine whether counting steps improves health, researchers followed up on 1,297 participants from two past clinical trials. Most of the participants were overweight or obese at the time the studies began, but they were otherwise in good health and had no history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or depression.

    The clinical trials randomly assigned half of the participants to track their steps with pedometers for more than 12 weeks, while the other half were assigned to do no tracking. The participants who received pedometers also received coaching from nurses and were asked to keep step diaries.

    When the researchers followed up with participants three to four years later, long after the original studies had concluded, they found that participants who had been assigned pedometers were engaging in about 30 additional minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week compared with the participants without pedometers.

    Participants assigned pedometers were also 66% less likely to experience a serious cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, and 44% less likely to experience a fracture.

    The researchers also found reductions in risk factors for diabetes and depression among pedometer users, but the changes were not statistically significant.

    An encouraging sign—but pedometers aren't enough to drive change

    Tess Harris, lead author of the study and a professor of primary care research at St. George's University of London, said the study results reveal that step counters encourage participants to increase their "walking, and maintaining [it] can reduce your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and fractures over the next few years."

    According to Harris, step counters can be useful to patients "as they give people a clear idea of how much they are doing … and can be used to set realistic goals for increasing their walking."

    But Mitesh Patel, director of the Penn Medicine Nudge Unit at the University of Pennsylvania, said that simply giving someone a step counter isn't enough. Behavioral strategies, "such as goal-setting, coaching, or social interventions," are also necessary to achieve better health outcomes, Patel said.

    Further, obsessing over the number of steps you take each day will not be helpful, according to David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon who was not involved in the study. "Don't obsess … but try to go for a walk every day," he said. "Hopefully it will become a habit and encourage you to become active in other ways in your life" (Rapaport, Reuters, 6/25). 

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