Who wins the fitness tracking race — smartphones or wearables? JAMA study suggests it’s a close call

With the number of smartphone users set to hit 2 billion this year and the wearables users expected to hit nearly 50 million by 2018 , a University of Pennsylvania study decided it was time for a competition between these two markets focused on accuracy. It selected from the top 10 best-selling apps and devices […]

With the number of smartphone users set to hit 2 billion this year and the wearables users expected to hit nearly 50 million by 2018 , a University of Pennsylvania study decided it was time for a competition between these two markets focused on accuracy. It selected from the top 10 best-selling apps and devices in a competition for 500 and 1,500 steps.

It wasn’t a hugely ambitious study, which was published in JAMA. With only 14 participants, the trial was on the small side. About 71 percent were women and the average age was 28.

Each participant was kitted out with wearables. They wore a DigiWalker on their waistband and two Fitbit accelerometers — Zip and One. On the wrist they wore the Flex by Fitbit, the UP24 by Jawbone and Nike Fuelband. In their trouser pockets they carried a iPhone5s which simultaneously ran 3 iOS applications: Fitbit, Withings’ Health Mate and Moves by ProtoGeo Oy. In the other pocket they carried a Galaxy S4 from Samsung running Moves. Speed was never going to be a factor, obviously.

The study showed that the wearables had the most variation. The study authors said smartphones have the market penetration and fitness apps supported by iOS and Android networks are competitive enough that they offer the best chance of steering the population to healthier exercise habits. Basically, they say most people already have smartphones anyway. Why go out and buy a fitness tracker that’s only marginally better at best? A demographic study showed that wearable owners tend to be more well off than average — 41 percent earn an average of $100,000 or more.

“Since step counts are such an important part of how these devices and apps measure physical activity, including calculating distance or calories burned, their accuracy is key,” said senior author Dr Mitesh S. Patel, an assistant professor of Medicine and Healthcare Management at Penn and an attending physician at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. “Compared to the one to two percent of adults in the U.S. that own a wearable device, more than 65 percent of adults carry a smartphone. Our findings suggest that smartphone apps could prove to be a more widely accessible and affordable way of tracking health behaviors.”

For a perspective on this study from a wearables tech exec, check out this post.

[Photo of marathon from Bigstock Photo]