Nowadays, almost everyone seems to have one of the many fitness trackers available on the market. These devices can be helpful in motivating a person to work out, monitor their weight, and generally be healthier. Several types of these trackers can also connect to a smartphone, helping a person feel more connected and on top of things in their busy day.
While there has been a significant increase in people buying these trackers in recent days, researchers from Boise State University, the University of Tennessee, and the University of North Florida have discovered a not-so-surprising trend: an overall decrease in physical activity over the past two decades, mainly due to more screen time caused by advancing technology.
Background: A Higher Demand for Fitness Trackers
The sales of fitness trackers have skyrocketed in the past five years, from $14 billion in total revenue in 2017 to $36 billion in 2020. Part of the increase has been due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as topics like health and medicine have made more headlines, reminding a higher number of individuals to work on their health.
Fitness trackers often use smartphone apps to help update users and notify them of their steps, miles, or other health data. Depending on the tracker and the app, some individuals may pay a monthly subscription, giving the fitness tracker companies more income. While these companies pitch their devices as a way to boost health, recent research was shown these trackers do little to actually raise an individual’s physical activity.
Analysis: Less Exercise
Researchers in kinesiology, the study of body movements, wanted to determine if fitness trackers helped increase exercise. The team analyzed over 20 years of population data from eight different developed countries around the world. The populations of individuals were broken down into similar age groups, which were tracked and studied for 22 years. Physical activity was tracked with pedometers and other health devices.
From their analysis, the researchers found a global decline in overall physical activity between 1995 and 2017. The decline was fairly similar in each geographical region and between sexes. Some age groups showed a steeper decline than others. For example, adolescents ages 11 to 19 years old had a physical activity decline of around 30%. While the researchers didn’t fully analyze why this decline occurred, it’s a safe bet to assume it had something to do with screens.
Outlook: More Screens, Less Sweat
The years 1995 to 2017 saw major changes in technology. They made advanced devices more portable, allowing for a significant bump up in screen use. For adolescents specifically, average daily screen time increased from 5 hours in 1999 to 8.8 hours in 2017. With more screen time, individuals feel less motivated to exercise, or don’t budget as much time for health and exercise.
While the number of fitness trackers being sold is at an all-time high, these devices clearly aren’t doing enough to encourage less screen time and more physical activity. Perhaps the next generation of these devices will take factors like these into account, and maybe encourage exercisers to turn off their screens until the workout is over.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/