Smartphone health apps not recording complete activity of users

A surprising find indicates that heath apps on smartphones that are used by millions of people around the world are actually under reporting the physical activities of users and this means that you could be burning more calories than shown by the smartphone app you are using.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia have found through a new study that iPhone’s built-in pedometer missed about 1,340 steps during a user’s typical day when compared to a purpose-built accelerometer worn on the waist.

With smartphones becoming more advanced and packing a range of sensors, the influx of health apps is at an all time high with more and more users using them to keep tabs on their health vitals. However, accuracy of smartphones and health apps is becoming more important as medical experts and technology companies rush to tap into the smartphone’s enormous potential as a tool for gathering health data. Almost everyone has a smartphone, and they’re usually handy, making it easy for an average person to participate in a study, and for scientists to gather data.

The UBC study involved 33 participants and was divided into two parts: a laboratory test and a test in regular living conditions. In the lab test, participants carried two iPhones–a personal iPhone and a shared one provided by the lab–so researchers could see if different phone models produced different results. Participants walked on a treadmill for 60 seconds at various speeds and their steps were counted manually. Personal iPhones underestimated steps by 9.4 per cent at the slowest speed of 2.5 km/h. The shared iPhone fared slightly better at 7.6 per cent. At faster walking speeds, the phones were off by less than five per cent, which is generally considered acceptable for a pedometer.

For the other part of the study, participants fixed accelerometers to their waists for a full day, and recorded step readings from the iPhone at the beginning and end of the day. Over three days, the iPhone underestimated the accelerometer data by an average of 21.5 per cent, or 1,340 steps per day.

The technology is not entirely to blame, though. Several participants reported leaving phones behind during short trips to the bathroom or the water cooler. And daily living often involves slower walking speeds, which the lab test showed can affect accuracy.

The results suggest researchers should use caution when relying on smartphone data, but Duncan said the average person shouldn’t be discouraged from using health apps for motivation.

Carol Harris

Carol Harris

Carol has over 10 years of experience in online news industry. She started out as a content writer for a number of news organizations around the world, eventually landing the job of editor at Technology 24.

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