Fitness trackers make you move more, regardless of whether or not you even check the device, according to a new study.

Subjects who wore a fitness tracker walked an average of 318 more steps a day than those without one. Most interestingly of all, this finding remained true even when the subjects weren’t working toward a particular fitness goal or incentive – and even when they couldn’t see the actual step count on the pedometer !

“Humans are hardwired to respond to what is being measured because if it’s being measured, it feels like it matters,” says study co-author and BYU Marriott School of Business professor Bill Tayler in a university release.

“When people go get an Apple Watch or a 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.”

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Fitness trackers: effective even if you don’t actually use them

fitness trackers

To research the effects of being monitored on people’s step counts, the researchers developed a clever experimental design.

“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,” Prof. Tayler explains.

To see whether people tend to walk more while wearing a pedometer, researchers needed to know how much people were walking before they had the fitness tracker or, alternatively, how much pedometer users walk in comparison to another group of randomly selected people not wearing one.

Both scenarios, would require the use of a fitness tracker to produce a set of baseline measurements. To get around this issue, the researchers used the iPhone’s default step-tracking feature.

“It was a bit of a sneaky way to get the data we needed,” Prof. Tayler adds.

In the beginning, the researchers asked all 90 study participants to grant them permission to access data on their smartphones. The participants weren’t actually told, though, that their step counts from the weeks prior were being recorded. These earlier data provided the necessary baseline measurements to reveal how much participants typically walked when they weren’t being actively monitored.

Some participants were then given fitness trackers without a display, while the rest were not – and, crucially, this second group was not told about the study’s purpose. After two weeks had passed, step count data was accessed once again from the subjects’ iPhones.

“Measurement and tracking precede improvement,” adds BYU graduate Christian Tadje, who spearheaded the research as a student working with the Healthcare Industry Research Collaborative. “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.”

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