Role of wearable activity-tracking technologies on the well-being and quality of life of people aged 55 and over

About the project

Our research project at UK’s Open University and in collaboration with Age UK Milton Keynes aims to investigate whether there are changes in behaviour in people aged over 55 years through the use of wearable activity-tracking technologies. Example technologies include those from Fitbit, Jawbone, or smart watches from Apple or Samsung. Typically, these devices record steps walked, sleep patterns, or calories expended.  

The benefits of regular physical activity for older adults and those with chronic disease and/or mobility limitations are indisputable. Regular physical activity attenuates many of the health risks associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety, and cognitive decline. As physical activity levels among older adults (both with and without chronic disease) are low, facilitating an increase in activity levels is an important public health issue. Walking has been identified as an ideal means of low-impact, low-risk physical activity that can boost physical and mental wellbeing. Our previous research has shown that walking with others can help reduce social isolation and loneliness among people aged 55 and over.

Research strand related to participants trying out activity trackers

In our year-long project (May 2016 – April 2017), in collaboration with Age UK Milton Keynes and funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, we have given activity-trackers to 21 participants in the age range from 55 – 82. Through monthly workshops, diaries that the participants are maintaining and sharing with us on a weekly basis, and through one-to-one interviews with them, we are investigating how the behaviours of our participants is changing – whether there is an increase in their activity such as walking or gardening, lifestyle changes, attitudes towards food/diet, and so on.

Our preliminary data analysis shows: increase in activity levels in all the participants; increased awareness of food intake; and sharing of data with the GPs to diagnose the non-optimal sleep patterns (one of them now has a treatment plan in place for poor sleep). A couple of participants have joined the gym when they realised that their desk-based work-life doesn’t give them the opportunity to stay active during the week. One of the participants who as high-sensitivity to ultraviolet rays is able to plan her outings by viewing the snapshot of the current UV level and by setting an exposure reminder to help protect herself. An 80+ participant is able to plan her days based on the activity levels that her device provides – having some rest-days in between hectic days so as not to over-tire herself.

A couple of quotes from our participants:

“I have been thinking about how the Fitbit has changed my daily routine and there is no doubt that it has changed my view of exercise. I am feeling better and the additional exercise continues to help with the osteoarthritis in my knees.  I have set my daily target as 5000 steps and I am now achieving this on most days, I feel I have failed if I don’t.” 
“I am still checking the number of steps but I don’t feel as disappointed if I haven’t reached my target.  There is no doubt that it has made me more aware of the need for exercise and I now park at the far side of the car park and walk to the shop – not much but its progress.”

Latest news about our project

We have launched a survey that is aimed at medical professionals to explore whether they use the data from these devices for diagnosis and intervention. Most importantly, do medical professionals use data from these devices to determine the behaviour or lifestyle changes in people aged over 55 years?  If you are a doctor or healthcare professional, please visit https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/role-in-medical-consultations or http://bit.ly/2cPr852 to participate in this survey. It will take 3-5 minutes to complete this survey.