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Fit for purpose

News story

Fitbits – the wireless high-tech wristbands people wear to track their daily steps, among other things – are usually considered the domain of the young, fit and lycra-clad. However, Research Fellow Dr Elissa Burton from the School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science is curious about how older people use Fitbits, and has taken the ubiquitous activity tracker to a group of seniors in the community to find out.

Dr Elissa Burton with participants
Dr Elissa Burton and some of the participants from her study.

A Fitbit tracks the wearer’s daily activity, such as the number of steps taken (the Fitbit vibrates and flashes at 10,000 steps), stairs climbed, heart rate and quality of sleep. The daily data is accessed via a Fitbit app on the user’s smartphone or tablet, which can also log fitness goals, food and water intake and weight.

Dr Burton, the research lead on the project, ‘Assessing the reliability, validity and feasibility of fitness tracker devices for older people’ is examining the reliability of Fitbit data, and its ease-of-use for seniors, over a two week period.

“Other researchers have been looking at the validity and reliability of fitness trackers with younger people but not as much with older people, who are the fastest growing proportion of the population throughout the world,” Dr Burton said.

“Older people also have different walking patterns and speeds to younger people, so it’s also necessary to look at how that affects the tracker’s ability to count steps and track the data. Also, a higher proportion of younger people are more inclined to use technology, and we wanted to see whether older people like using the technology and apps that go with the Fitbits.”

Dr Elissa Burton with participants walking

The participants wear a Fitbit and an accelerometer for two weeks, and go about their usual routine.

Approximately 30 people will participate in the study, which involves completing a questionnaire, and being filmed while walking and wearing two Fitbits, and an accelerometer, on each arm. The participants are then asked to wear a Fitbit – a Flex or a Charge HR – and an accelerometer for two weeks, and go about their usual routine. They are shown how to use the Fitbit apps on their smartphone or tablet, and provided with written step-by-step instructions for home use.

After two weeks, participants return the fitness tracker and answer a number of questions about the usability and ease of wearing the device, and using the app.

Results from the research will be available in early 2017. Also participating in the project are Head of School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science Professor Keith Hill, Curtin adjunct Professor Gill Lewin, Professor Nicola Lautenschlager from the Academic Unit for Psychiatry of Old Age, University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, and Dr Erin Howie from the University of Arkansas.

Researcher profile – Dr Elissa Burton

Dr Burton researches healthy ageing. Her PhD, completed in July 2014, looked at physical activity and older home-care clients. Dr Burton’s passion is exploring and utilising physical activity interventions that have a positive effect on older people, and help them stay in their homes for as long as they choose. She enjoys working directly with organisations to help their clients, patients or members live their best lives through being physically active. Although difficult at times, translating research into practice is a strong focus of her research.