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Wearable devices may help people increase their physical activity and reduce their risk of various diseases, experts say

In this month’s Medical Journal of Australia, researchers from the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Newcastle in NSW have reported that more active people require less hospital care.

Their study of 3253 Newcastle residents aged 55 or more found that an “achievable” extra 4300 steps per day (i.e. an increase in step count from 4500 to 8800 steps per day) was associated with an average of one less day in hospital for every three years of life.

These findings confirm the critical importance of physical activity in reducing the global burden of diseases such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers, write Jo Salmon and Nicola Ridgers from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition in Melbourne.

Apple Watch showing physical activity monitor. Image by Должин Жаргалсайхан
Wearable devices such as the Apple Watch prompt people to move, stand and exercise at various points throughout the day. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In their accompanying MJA editorial, Professor Salmon and Dr Ridgers explain that currently fewer than 50% of Australian adults meet current physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week.

“The biggest challenge faced by clinical and public health practitioners is how to increase activity levels in our largely sedentary population,” they say.

Wearable technology, for example activity monitors such as Fitbit, Garmin, Apple Watch, may provide the motivation needed to increase levels of physical activity among the population, Professor Salmon and Dr Ridgers suggest.

“Twenty percent of the Australian adult population (10% of those aged 65 or more) own some form of wearable technology. The popularity, mass market appeal, pervasiveness, and widespread availability of wearable devices, combined with their decreasing cost, provide significant opportunities for promoting physical activity in the broader community.

“For health practitioners with sedentary patients looking for assistance with becoming more active, a wearable activity monitor would be a good first step.”

In addition to the wearable device, Professor Salmon and Dr Ridgers say other features that may facilitate sustained improvement in physical activity levels include:

  • An accompanying app that allows the wearer to easily track their activity and receive feedback relevant to set goals;
  • Social support from family and health professionals;
  • Opportunities to individually tailor programs;
  • Prompts for activity behaviours; and
  • The ability track other health behaviours and outcomes, e.g. diet, weight, heart rate.

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