Image source: Garmin

Fitness trackers underestimate step count in older generation, Garmin study

A new Garmin study has shown that wearables tend to underestimate step count for the older generation. It is all to do with walking speed.

There has been little research so far into the accuracy of fitness trackers and smartwatches when it comes to tracking older adults in challenging environments. A study conducted by School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (The University of Queensland), Logan Hospital (Metro South Health Service) and Sonova AG (Stafa,Switzerland) set out to change this.

Their paper was published in Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. For the research, the scientists strapped Garmin Vivofit 4 devices to fourty adults aged over 60 years. The participants were required to walk on a treadmill at four speeds, in addition to a doing the same over a 50 meter indoor and 200 meter outdoor circuit with environmental challenges.

The step counts estimated by the Garmin Vivofit 4 were compared with a miniature electronic logger called activPAL3. They were also assessed against a chest-worn camera pointed at the feed of the participants.

The results – wearables underestimate steps at slow speeds

Garmin uses pretty much the same technology and algorithms for its entire range of devices. So the results gathered with Vivofit 4 are representative of its entire range. As the company is one of the best when it comes to accuracy, similar or worse accuracy can be expected with other wearables.

So what do the results show?

The Garmin Vivofit 4 displayed high correlation and low percentage error rates at fast treadmill speeds and the outdoor circuit. However, step counts were underestimated at the slowest treadmill speed and the indoor circuit with postural transitions.

Which leads to the conclusion that these types of devices are accurate for older adults at higher walking speeds and during outdoor walking. However, the device has the tendency to underestimate steps in other conditions. This may be compounded with age as it is reasonable to expect a slowdown of walking speeds when the age goes up.

One would expect that this and similar future studies will be used by Garmin and other brands to adjust their algorithms. After all, the fitness tracker and smartwatch on your wrist knows your age as this type of information is required to set up an account.

But this study shows that step counts are not an exact science. So if you are a slow walker and typically fall slightly short of your daily goal, take some comfort in the knowledge that you may be logging higher step counts than the wearable on your wrist is saying.

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Marko Maslakovic

Marko founded Gadgets & Wearables in 2014, having worked for more than 15 years in the City of London’s financial district. Since then, he has led the company’s charge to become a leading information source on health and fitness gadgets and wearables.

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