Tinder isn’t the only way smartphones can help you get physical.
Many use fitness apps on their phone to track their steps and motivate themselves to get exercise.
Messaging applications lead the way in terms of usage, but health and fitness apps are growing in popularity. They accounted for the highest engagement among 11 per cent of smartphone users in a recent surveyed by Flurry Analytics in September for Yahoo Canada.
So it should come as no surprise that corporate heavyweights are entering the fitness app market at full sprint. Adidas acquired the Runtastic app last August for a reported $240 million (U.S.), and Facebook bought the company behind Moves in the spring of 2014 for an undisclosed amount.
The problem for their users is that some of these apps may not be accurate. A recent University of Toronto study of pedometer apps Runtastic, Moves and Accupedo suggests “the most commonly downloaded smartphone applications are neither valid nor consistent in measuring step counts.”
U of T researchers ran a number of tests to measure the precision of these three pedometer apps, the most popular in their category, which are compatible with Android and Apple devices.
The study was led by Guy Faulkner, a professor of kinesiology and physical education, and Krystn Orr, a master’s student in exercise sciences, and published in the journal RMC Research Notes in November.
The purpose of the study was to see if the apps were reliable enough to use in medical interventions, said Orr. In that respect, they all fell short.
“If we’re interested in encouraging people to be physically active, then self-monitoring is important,” Faulkner said.
“But we need to be cautious that they (these apps) may be underreporting, and on occasion over-reporting, your physical activity, and that there are other devices out there that probably do a better job.”
The pedometer applications were measured against a Yamax SW-200 pedometer (which sells for about $33 on Amazon.) In three of the four tests, they fared worse than the pedometer and were off by a significant margin: plus or minus 5 per cent.
In the most basic of the tests, the researchers asked people to walk 20 steps at a normal pace. Moves underestimated the number of steps by about 30 per cent, Accupedo by roughly 25 per cent. Runtastic over-reported the steps by more than 10 per cent. The pedometer was almost spot-on.
The only test where one of the apps bested the pedometer was in the 40-step stair climb, where Runtastic registered a negative 3.41 per cent to the pedometer’s plus 10 per cent.
In a free-living trial, in which participants were told to live as usual while running the apps and wearing the pedometer for at least 10 hours per day for three days, the applications were significantly wrong again.
“Overall, the applications were neither valid nor consistent in the sample population under both controlled lab test and free-living conditions,” the authors say.
Fitness apps that use GPS and accelerometers built into mobile phones are still relatively new, which is why Jim McDannald cuts them a little slack in terms of accuracy.
“It’s such a vast evolving technology that it’s hard to determine what is a flick of your wrist versus you typing on your keyboard or walking,” said the health and fitness technology writer for The Wire Cutter and distance-running coach at McGill University.
Even if apps could measure step count perfectly, that’s not necessarily the best way to measure fitness, he noted.
Many companies are now also tracking other metrics such as resting heart rate, he said.
At McGill, his athletes don’t use smartphone fitness apps, but they do wear GPS running watches to make sure they aren’t over-exerting themselves on recovery days.
Although some fitness smartphone apps are imprecise, for the average Joe they may be better than nothing, McDannald said.
“If someone is looking for a source of motivation, or they want to quantify how much activity they’re doing, I think these devices, whether they’re a smartphone app or a dedicated tracker, they can serve that purpose,” he said.
“But if you’re looking for a precise measurement of everything you do during the day, you’re probably going to be left disappointed.”