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Are iPhones counting your steps accurately? Not at all, says a new study

Posted December 9, 2017

People now have an opportunity to really track their daily physical activity using their smartphones. This allows making informed decisions regarding their lifestyle as well as provides some extra motivation to reach their daily goals. But how accurate those built-in pedometers are? Scientists from the University of British Columbia say that not very.

Smartphones can count our every step, but usually they do not work very accurately. Image credit: Duncan Harris via Wikimedia(CC BY 2.0)

You may think that this is not important – who is relying on the physical activity data, collected by a smartphone? Professional athletes certainly do not do that and for amateurs it is not that important. However, scientists say that phones are accompanying us on every step of our lives. This is actually quite serious, since major companies are trying to tap into this market, making bolder and stronger claims about usability of fitness tracking apps. Now scientists found that iPhone misses about 1,340 steps during a user’s typical day. In other words, you may be doing more than your smartphone is telling you.

This study with 33 participants was divided into two parts. In the first part participants had to talk on a treadmill in a laboratory setting, carrying two iPhones and counting their steps manually. Scientists found that iPhones underestimate the number of steps by about 7.6-9.4 % when walking at a slow speed of 2.5 km/h. At faster speeds phones were misleading the user by less than 5 %, which is not bad. The second part of the study was carried out in real life. Here the difference between an iPhone and a purpose-built pedometer was even greater – 21.5 %, or 1,340 steps per day. However, part of this increase is because a professional pedometer is worn on the chest rather than carried in the pocket. This makes users less likely to forget them behind when going to the bathroom or on other short trips.

So what does this mean? Are iPhones (or smartphones in general) not trustworthy when it comes to fitness tracking? Well, it depends on how you look at it. On one hand, the data is definitely not accurate enough for scientists, but on the other – amateur users should not feel discouraged. Mark Duncan, the study’s lead author, said: “For people who are already tracking their steps, they can rest assured that if their phone says they’re getting the recommended 10,000 steps in a day, they are probably getting at least that many, and they are working toward better health”.

The fact that it underestimates is better than if it overestimated. You can totally use this data for motivation – whatever keeps you going and improving yourself.


Source: UBC

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