Research finds popular free fitness apps are inaccurate and unreliable
07/12/2015 | Valerie Iancovich


PHOTO: iStock

GPS navigator, recipe finder, camera, music player: the phones that most of us use today go well beyond voice-to-voice communication. However, if you thought your smartphone could also serve as an inexpensive, pocket-sized personal trainer, newly-published research has found that the three of the most popular, free apps designed to track your fitness progress are seriously flawed.

The evaluation was led by Professor Guy Faulkner and KPE master's student Krystn Orr and was published in the journal, BMC Research Notes.

“We know that more and more Canadians want to take their health into their own hands and these apps seem like a good way to do just that,” Orr explains. “Self-evaluation can be very effective in lifestyle change as well, so it’s important that people are getting the most accurate information possible and using tools they can trust.”

The work was inspired by a larger project, Rise at Work, evaluating workplace physical activity at University of Toronto. The researchers were looking for a cost-effective, accessible way to track steps and noted that, to date, there has been a relatively limited number of published research papers looking into commercial smartphone pedometer applications.  When they launched their research last November Accupedo, Moves, and the Runtastic Pedometer apps were the most popular free downloads, so they ran each through a series of tests to measure their accuracy. Each of the apps is compatible with Android and Apple smartphones and gathers step stats via the phones’ built-in accelerometers, GPS navigation tools, or a combination of both.

Subjects used the apps in a variety of scenarios. The most basic was a simple, 20-step test during which they wore a traditional pedometer on their hip and held the phone in their hand. They found that in each instance, the pedometer was pretty much bang-on, but the phone apps were off by about five percent. Similar results were found after a 40-step stair climb test, three days of unstructured, regular activity and a treadmill test.

The team also found that the tools weren’t quite as smart as they claimed. When one researcher found her phone tallied steps when she was actually stuck sitting in traffic, the team was inspired to add a driving test to official research. They found that with each app, the GPS tool interpreted the car moving slowly as the subject walking.

Overall, researchers say there was “an unacceptable error percentage in all of the applications when compared to the pedometer."

So, if you’re looking for a tool to help keep your fitness goals on track and your new year’s resolutions in sight, Orr suggests investing in the wearable technology that was designed specifically for tracking movement as previous studies suggest they are more accurate. However, she points out that wearable tech like can get pricey. “Really, there’s no reason you can’t just stick to a traditional pedometer. It’s probably the most reliable and cost-effective tool for self-tracking your steps.”

Read the article, "Validity of smartphone pedometer applications" online here. This paper was authored by: Krystn Orr*, Holly S. Howe, Janine Omran, Kristina A. Smith, Tess M. Palmateer, Alvin E. Ma and Guy Faulkner.




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