Image source: Fitbit

Wrist-worn motion sensors can be used to predict mortality risk

A new study has shown that fitness tracker data can be used to predict mortality risk up to five years later. It turns out we should not only monitor the number of daily steps that we make, but also the walking intensity.


Large-scale study – looking at 100,000 individuals

Published in PLOS Digital Health, the study tapped into the UK Biobank database. This is a large-scale research resource, containing in-depth genetic and health information from half a million UK residents aged 40 to 69 years. To date, there is no US equivalent.

The study cohort consisted of 100,000 participants from this database who used activity monitors for 1 week between 2006 and 2010. As this is such a large sample, it is considered to be representative of the entire UK population.

Methodology from similar research efforts that relied on accelerometer sensors built into smartphones was utilised. Needless to say, fitness trackers are much more convenient for gathering this type of information as they are worn all the time so collect more comprehensive data.

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Researchers went beyond many previous studies which demonstrated the benefits of leading an active lifestyle. This has been well proven time and time again.

So instead of monitoring things such as overall step count, the data was distilled down to a relay of six-minute chunks. It was then analysed for intensity of activity.

Walking intensity is important

As the paper notes, “typically, the duration of activity, the total volume, is considered more important than the intensity itself”. But this study demonstrates that intensity of activity can be just as important as duration. This is particularly evident for certain population cohorts, such as cardiopulmonary patients. It is no wonder, measuring physical activity via walking intensity has become a standard practice for certain clinical settings.

The activity data was compared with death records for the entire sample of 100,000 participants. This enabled researchers to develop a model that predicts the risk of 5-year mortality based on duration and intensity of walking. It is accurate an impressive 73% of the time.

What this shows is that individuals with lower mortality have more moderate-to-vigorous activity during the day. More specifically, those who tend to walk at least 100 steps a minute can expect to live 15-20 years longer!


Other studies confirm findings

This research is very much along the lines of another study published a few years ago in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. That one also used information from the UK Biobank database. Its conclusions were similar. Participants who reported walking at a brisk pace were biologically younger, with lower BMI, body fat percentage and waist circumference.

That’s just one more reason for the older population to embrace wearables. Such devices can collect critical data before it is too late.

Not only that, but wearables have been shown to be beneficial in motivating people to move more. A paper published by University of Michigan researchers earlier this year quantified the effect. Their study of the older generation showed that those with a fitness tracker on their wrist saw an average increase of 900 steps per day as compared to their baseline values. And as this new paper demonstrates, taking fewer steps may still bring health benefits – especially if you walk at a brisk pace.

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