Wearable Devices and Smartphones for Activity Tracking Among People with Serious Mental Illness

Ment Health Phys Act. 2016 Mar;10:10-17. doi: 10.1016/j.mhpa.2016.02.001.


Introduction: People with serious mental illness, including schizophrenia spectrum and mood disorders, are more physically inactive than people from the general population. Emerging wearable devices and smartphone applications afford opportunities for promoting physical activity in this group. This exploratory mixed methods study obtained feedback from participants with serious mental illness to assess the acceptability of using wearable devices and smartphones to support a lifestyle intervention targeting weight loss.

Methods: Participants with serious mental illness and obesity enrolled in a 6-month lifestyle intervention were given Fitbit activity tracking devices and smartphones to use for the study. Participants completed quantitative post-intervention usability and satisfaction surveys, and provided qualitative feedback regarding acceptability of using these devices and recommendations for improvement through in-depth interviews.

Results: Eleven participants wore Fitbits for an average of 84.7% (SD=18.1%) of the days enrolled in the study (median=93.8% of the days enrolled, interquartile range=83.6-94.3%). Participants were highly satisfied, stating that the devices encouraged them to be more physically active and were useful for self-monitoring physical activity and reaching daily step goals. Some participants experienced challenges using the companion mobile application on the smartphone, and recommended greater technical support, more detailed training, and group tutorials prior to using the devices.

Discussion: Participants' perspectives highlight the feasibility and acceptability of using commercially available mHealth technologies to support health promotion efforts targeting people with serious mental illness. This study offers valuable insights for informing future research to assess the effectiveness of these devices for improving health outcomes in this high-risk group.

Keywords: Fitbit; mHealth; mental illness; physical activity; smartphone; wearable device.