Role of wearable activity monitors in improving the level of activity in people aged over 55 years

Pictures: Dashboard of a activity tracker, a wearable activity tracker, a participant who we interviewed on Skype showing us the clip-on activity tracker, and another participant who we interviewed in a face-to-face setting

Project details

In our digital health wearables research programme funded by Sir Halley Stewart Trust and the ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, we have been investigating the role of wearable activity monitoring technologies in the health and well-being of people - aged 55 years and over, carers, and the people being cared for.

Example technologies include activity trackers from Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung, and smart watches. Typically, these devices record steps walked, floors climbed, sleep patterns, calories expended and heart rate.

In this blog-post, we discuss how the activity monitors are helping people aged over 55 years towards their activity and fitness:

  • to raise awareness of their activity levels;
  • to improve and maintain their activity levels.

Research Data sources

  • Survey with people aged over 55 years who are using the activity trackers on their experience of using activity monitors for self-monitoring and self-management of health: n=516 (female: 341; male: 173; 2 respondents didn't specify their gender) of the following age groups: 
    • 55-64 years: 362;
    • 65-74 years: 139;
    • 75-84 years: 13; and
    • 85 and older: 1.
  • Interviews with 10 participants aged over 55 years.

How the use of devices has influenced people over 55 years?

The survey results for question 13 (n=476) show that, out of all the participants, 375 said that they are now  more conscious of their level of activity; followed by 256 who said that they compared their own progress in time, and 217 who had become more active now (please see the data-chart below).

Q13: How has the use of devices influenced you? (please choose ALL that apply)

Answered: 476, skipped: 40

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Some of the comments from the survey-participants on how the use of activity monitors have influenced them:

It is very useful for me to understand how the type of activity I'm involved helps me to build my level of fitness. (65-74 years, female, survey)

I am more informed on what I am eating, how much sleep I am getting and how active I am. (55-64 years, female, survey)

The device motivates me to be active through beating challenges and meeting targets. (55-64 years, male, survey)

People find it helpful to compare their fitness and health levels over previous days, weeks or months (256 participants in the survey and in the data-chart above):

“So I wear it all the time and the [tracker] sends me a weekly report so I can look at what my heart rate has been doing for the whole week, which is a really useful function.” (65-74 age, male, interview)

Improving and maintaining activity levels and health

On a day-to-day basis, the activity trackers make them aware of their inactivity/activity:

“I haven’t gone very far today. And I’ll look at it, like now, and I’ll say, “I’ve only done 1,000 steps”. Come on, come on, get up and move around, do something”. (55-64 years, female, interview)

In terms of monitoring health related issues, activity trackers have helped people monitor their activity if they suffer from any heart-related conditions and lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Trackers have helped them to stay active, which has had a positive influence on their medical condition.

A male user who has an untreatable lung condition has used his activity tracker to improve his step count which in turn has improved his condition over time:

When I first got the activity tracker, I had a poor period of health for about three months. […] Then got really busy. […] this year […] I’m well online to meet my minimum target of 20,000 a day. I’ll probably exceed that by the end of the year unless my health turns bad and knocks me back a bit. […]

...but the one [thing] I can say is that since I started with the lung condition the more I’ve been walking the less problem I’ve had with it. Whether that’s a proper correlation or not, I don’t know. That’s certainly been the fact, the more walking I’ve done the less problems my lungs have been.” (65-74 years, male, interview)

ESRC Impact Acceleration Award

Despite the wide-spread use of wearable activity monitors by older people (e.g. gifts by concerned relatives) and carers, our research has shown that the functionality of these devices is not informed by the kinds of activities that these users undertake, their digital skills, their data requirements, data management and security. In the project that has received the ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, we are involved in a knowledge exchange programme to communicate the requirements to manufacturers for improving the design of activity monitoring technologies (and digital health wearables, in general) for older users, carers and medical professionals.

Project team

Academics: Dr. Duncan Banks (OU), Dr. Kate Hamblin (Oxford University) Dr. Caroline Holland (OU), Dr. George Leeson (Oxford University) Ms. Catherine McNulty (OU), Professor Shailey Minocha (OU) and Dr. Ana-Despina Tudor (OU)

Collaborators: Age UK MK (Jane Palmer), Carers MK (Sue Bowering and Robert Benn) and Samsung UK (Rohit Ail and Qian Shen)

Research Managers: Louise Thomas (OU) and Katia Padvalkava (Oxford University)