Nova Scotia

Fitness apps and wearable tech research lacking, says Dalhousie prof

Not a lot of research has been done on the effectiveness of fitness apps and wearable technology, according to a Dalhousie University researcher.

'We have a lot of technology out there that we haven't had the opportunity to evaluate properly'

There may not be a lot of research on fitness apps and wearable devices but Alex Millette said he can see how his body has changed since he started using one. (David Burke/CBC)

Fitness apps and wearable devices like Fitbits may be all the rage, but one Dalhousie University health expert says there's still too little research to know if they actually live up to the hype.

"We do have a bit of a gap, so the technology is actually moving faster than the research that is being done," said Sara Kirk, a professor of health promotion.

"We have a lot of technology out there that we haven't had the opportunity to evaluate properly."

Kirk said some research has been completed, mainly in the U.S. and Australia, but it's not enough to get a clear picture of the effectiveness of fitness tech. Even Consumer Reports in the U.S. said it hasn't done any testing.

"So it's pretty difficult for people to make the smart choice in getting the right app for them or their family," Kirk said. 

Alex Millette uses apps to track his workouts and monitor everything he eats. (David Burke/CBC)

But there are plenty of believers out there. 

Alex Millette said apps and wearable technology offer results you can see. The 22-year-old learned about bodybuilding from apps and said his muscular physique is a direct result of that guidance. 

"They led to probably a healthier lifestyle, but mostly it just kind of gives you the knowledge and the background, an idea of what you're supposed to be doing at the gym," he said. 

Professor Sara Kirk says fitness technology can be helpful if it motivates people to be more active. She even uses a Fitbit. (David Burke/CBC)

Kirk said academia can sometimes take a long time to catch up because researchers must propose studies and apply for grants. By the time the money is secured, the technology has moved on.

But in the next few years she believes research will gradually catch up to the technology people are using.

Despite a lack of hard data, Kirk said fitness apps can be helpful if they motivate people to be more active. In fact, she wears a Fitbit most days, which tracks how often she's on the move. 

Don't need data, see how pants fit 

Dwight d'Eon owns Anytime Fitness in Halifax. He questions how useful all the data obtained by fitness apps and wearable devices is to the average person. (David Burke/CBC)

But some question the helpfulness of apps and trackers that collect data on everything from how many steps are taken to how much sleep a person gets. 

Dwight d'Eon, the owner of Anytime Fitness in Halifax, said all that data could make people suffer paralysis from analysis. 

"Unless you're training for something very specific, I think the data is kind of irrelevant," he said. "I tell people to go by how your pants fit. So you know if your pants fit better, hey you're winning. If they don't fit any better toss the app and try something else." 

Apps loved by some 

Millette uses health apps religiously. 

"I'm absolutely on the obsessed scale. I do amateur bodybuilding, so for 20 solid weeks I'm constantly logging absolutely everything that I eat," he said. 

"I'm scanning bar codes to get the nutritional information to log it because I have to hit an exact number of macros and calories every day to lose the weight that I have to. Very much with the help of the apps for sure."   

Millette started using weightlifting apps on his phone a few years ago to help him learn his way around the gym. Now his calorie counting app and fitness tracker have become an essential part of his training. 

"I feel bad for people who do it without the app," said Milllette. 

"To sit there and have to write every nutrition thing down and have to add them up at the end of the day kind of thing, or add them as you're going along without basically having a calculator doing it for you in an app would be very time consuming."