Use of Activity Trackers by Low-Income and Elderly

More people in the U.S. are using activity trackers than ever, but those who could benefit the most aren’t using them. Researchers at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, conducting the first national study of a large, diverse population on the topic, found that 1.2 percent of the study population used activity trackers such as FitBits and Apple devices. While use among younger individuals was 2.8 to 3.1 percent, only 0.1 percent of those over age 65, used them. Use of devices was also lower among individuals with annual incomes under $50,000, with usage rates at 0.7 to 1 percent. “We found that though use grew over time, it really varied depending on individual characteristics like age and income,” said Mitesh Patel, director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit and assistant professor of medicine and health care management. The authors of the study suggest that more effort must be made to initially engage senior citizens and low-income users with activity trackers.

Initially engaging users is important; once people begin using activity trackers, rates of continued use are high. “Once someone started using an activity tracker, sustained use at six months was high, at 80 percent,” Dr. Patel said. Some devices use strategies like gamification with levels, points and badges to keep users engaged. “Our findings provide initial evidence that these types of engagement strategies may show promise for keeping sustained use high,” Dr. Patel said. 

In the study, researchers analyzed data from subscribers of a national health and wellness organization from 2014-2015, tracking how often the devices were used following activation, when the devices were activated, average daily step counts and socio-demographic characteristics. Penn co-authors on the study include Gregory W. Kurtzman, Charles A. L. Rareshide, Jingsan Zhu and Wenli Wang; Luca Foschini is also co-author.