While wearable electronic activity monitors may help users reach their fitness and health goals, choosing the right one and remaining motivated enough to wear it may be the bigger hurdle. A team of researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston took on the task of analyzing more than a dozen activity monitors to compare how the devices and their companion apps work to motivate the wearer.

These sophisticated devices constantly monitor users’ activities and bodily responses. The information is organized into companion computer programs and mobile apps. The researchers found that while many of apps were in line with recommendations from the health community, several were missing some aspects needed to reach goals. In the end, they said, device selection depends on the user’s personal needs and preferences.

The research team investigated 13 commercially available activity monitors, including devices by Basis, BodyMedia, Misfit, Fitbug, Ibitz, Polar and Withings, to detail what tactics they use to promote healthy and fit behaviors, determine how closely they match successful interventions, and compare the functionality of several devices and their apps to the recommendations of health care professionals.

They found that the app tools were similar to the amount of techniques used by health care professionals to increase their patients’ physical activity. However, several tactics associated with successfully increasing physical activity were uncommon in or absent from the monitor systems, including action planning, instruction on how to do the behavior, commitment, and problem solving.

In the end, the team explained, the apps with the most features may not be as useful as those with fewer but more effective tools. Individual success is also likely influenced by individual preferences and needs, such as the need for a waterproof monitor for swimming or a device with energy balance information including food logs, which may make them more suitable for weight loss attempts than systems that monitor activity and weight only.

Beyond the more typical uses for weight loss aids, electronic activity monitors may also be useful for patients when they are released from the hospital as a measure of recovery and quality of life. The consistent, objective measures used by these monitors could help health care professionals identify at-risk individuals for secondary prevention and rehabilitation purposes.