Mobile Device Accuracy for Step Counting Across Age Groups

JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2017 Jun 28;5(6):e88. doi: 10.2196/mhealth.7870.


Background: Only one in five American meets the physical activity recommendations of the Department of Health and Human Services. The proliferation of wearable devices and smartphones for physical activity tracking has led to an increasing number of interventions designed to facilitate regular physical activity, in particular to address the obesity epidemic, but also for cardiovascular disease patients, cancer survivors, and older adults. However, the inconsistent findings pertaining to the accuracy of wearable devices for step counting needs to be addressed, as well as factors known to affect gait (and thus potentially impact accuracy) such as age, body mass index (BMI), or leading arm.

Objective: We aim to assess the accuracy of recent mobile devices for counting steps, across three different age groups.

Methods: We recruited 60 participants in three age groups: 18-39 years, 40-64 years, and 65-84 years, who completed two separate 1000 step walks on a treadmill at a self-selected speed between 2 and 3 miles per hour. We tested two smartphones attached on each side of the waist, and five wrist-based devices worn on both wrists (2 devices on one wrist and 3 devices on the other), as well as the Actigraph wGT3X-BT, and swapped sides between each walk. All devices were swapped dominant-to-nondominant side and vice-versa between the two 1000 step walks. The number of steps was recorded with a tally counter. Age, sex, height, weight, and dominant hand were self-reported by each participant.

Results: Among the 60 participants, 36 were female (60%) and 54 were right-handed (90%). Median age was 53 years (min=19, max=83), median BMI was 24.1 (min=18.4, max=39.6). There was no significant difference in left- and right-hand step counts by device. Our analyses show that the Fitbit Surge significantly undercounted steps across all age groups. Samsung Gear S2 significantly undercounted steps only for participants among the 40-64 year age group. Finally, the Nexus 6P significantly undercounted steps for the group ranging from 65-84 years.

Conclusions: Our analysis shows that apart from the Fitbit Surge, most of the recent mobile devices we tested do not overcount or undercount steps in the 18-39-year-old age group, however some devices undercount steps in older age groups. This finding suggests that accuracy in step counting may be an issue with some popular wearable devices, and that age may be a factor in undercounting. These results are particularly important for clinical interventions using such devices and other activity trackers, in particular to balance energy requirements with energy expenditure in the context of a weight loss intervention program.

Keywords: adults; devices; mobile; physical activity; weight reduction.