Can smartphones actually make you more active?

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New research suggests that using a smartphone can be an effective way of motivating people to get moving and can even decrease unhealthy sedentary behaviour.

The US-based pilot study brought together researchers from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, the American Cancer Society, and the technical expertise of the e-Health Technology Program at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, to measure the movement of 215 participants, using accelerometers, for seven consecutive days. The researchers also asked all participants to carry smartphones for the full seven days.

During the study, as well as being measured by the accelerometers, participants who reported sitting for two hours or more a day also received messages to their smartphone encouraging them to stand up and move more, as well as information reminding them that prolonged periods of sitting down is bad for health. After the seven days, the accelerometer data showed that during the study, when compared to a control group, the participants carrying smartphones spent significantly less time sitting down and more time moving around being active, with the accelerometers recording 3% less sitting down time than the control group, equal to around 25 minutes more active time each day.

As a pilot study, the authors recognise that the research has its limitations, a key one being the short duration of the study, however they still conclude that the findings are significant, commenting that, “Overall, simple smartphone prompts appear to be a promising strategy for reducing sedentary behaviour and increasing activity, though adequately-powered and well-designed studies will be needed to confirm these preliminary findings.” The findings can be found online in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

A recent 2016 study showed that in severely obese individuals, even those who perform exercise are still at risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes if they lead a sedentary lifestyle. The findings suggested that decreasing sitting time, rather than just increasing the amount of time doing exercise, could be a more beneficial way to improve health, especially for those who struggle to reach the suggested quota of 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise as recommended by the US government.

An earlier 2015 study also found similar results, with researchers suggesting that decreasing the amount of time spent sitting down was an effective way to improve health. In their study the team found that one of the most effective ways to decrease time spent sitting was setting reminders to remind us to take a break.