On the face of it, it seems obvious.

Step counters, heart monitors, and related fitness activity tracking apps seem like they’d naturally increase your level of physical activity because they make it such an easy thing to track.

You may wonder: is that actually the case, or is it simply that you’re more aware of how much activity you’re performing on a typical day and not genuinely increasing your activity level at all?

It’s a fair question, and the fine folks at the Duke-National University of Singapore’s Medical School decided to run a long-term experiment to test it out. They designed a study which tracked the activity of a total of 800 full-time employees who were paid a nominal sum ($7) to participate.

The participants were divided randomly into four groups:

  • Group A – The control group.
  • Group B – Paid $3 a week, regardless of the number of steps taken and tracked by FitBit
  • Group C – Paid cash incentives of $11 for taking 50k – 70k steps each week and $22 for taking more than 70k steps in a week.
  • Group D – A payment made in the employee’s name to charity (in line with the payments received by Group C)

As one might expect, Group C was the most active, but members of Groups B and C were both significantly more active than the control group, with a catch.

After the cash incentives stopped, only about one study participant in ten continued with their increased activity levels. Within a year, overall activity levels across all groups had returned to their baseline levels.  According to this study then, the net long term effect of using a fitness tracker like FitBit is essentially nil.

It’s a great idea, and with further tweaking and refinement, it’s entirely possible that these apps and devices will one day usher in an era of increased activity. However, according to the latest research, that day is not today.