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BYU study says that wearing a step tracker may increase steps even if you don’t look at it much

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A Fitbit Alta product is shown.

Fitbit

Getting 10,000 steps in one day is the goal most people hear about since Apple Watches, Fitbits and phone trackers have been invented. But did you know that without even really looking at your pedometer, you are increasing your step count just by wearing it?

A BYU study found that people wearing a pedometer end up walking an average of 318 more steps a day than people who don’t. This also applies to people who don’t even have fitness goals or step incentives.

How the study was conducted

The team at BYU came up with an experiment to monitor what actually made people’s step counts higher. BYU Marriott School of Business professor Bill Tayler, who is author of the paper, said that from the beginning, the goal was to find out if measuring fitness actually helped change people’s behavior.

“We wanted to find out, absent goals and incentives, does simply tracking fitness change behavior? Until this study, no one had convincingly shown what we’ve shown — from an academic point of view, it turns out this is a super hard question to answer,” Tayler said.

The difficulty in answering this question came down to two questions researchers had:

  1. How many steps do people take a day without putting on their step tracker?
  2. How many steps would people with step trackers walk compared to a group who are not wearing a step tracker?

BYU’s team was able to answer the questions through iPhone’s step tracking feature. Not many people knew about the phone’s feature when the team began taking in data.

The study had 90 participants give consent to take information generally from their phones. Researchers didn’t tell participants what their step count was before the study. This gave a measure for researchers to go off of in terms of how many steps the participants took without being watched.

The BYU researchers gave a group of the participants a pedometer that didn’t show their trackings, while the rest of the participants weren’t given information about what the study was for. For two weeks, the team received data from the iPhones and saw that people who had a tracker, without the displays, had higher step counts.

What the study found

“Measurement and tracking precede improvement,” said Christian Tadje, a BYU graduate who led the research as a student. “If you want something to improve — for example, a key performance indicator in the workplace or a personal health goal — our study shows that you should consider tracking your progress.”

Tayler said the group found that people are greatly motivated by activities that can be measured.

“When people go get an Apple Watch or Fitbit, of course it’s going to affect their behavior; they obtained the device with the goal of walking more. But it’s helpful for individuals to know that even without trying, just being aware that something is tracking your steps increases your activity,” Tayler said.

Increasing physical activity provides longterm benefits and this study found some information that might be helpful within health care or business entities that are wanting to make a difference in public health.

“If I were an insurance executive, I’d be interested to know that you can hand out basic fitness trackers to people, and as long as they put them on, they’re going to walk more,” Tayler said.