Digital trackers help cardiac rehab patients boost activity on their own time

Digital tracking devices can motivate patients to increase their physical activity outside of structured cardiac rehabilitation, a new study suggests.

Austrian researchers compared the physiological performance of 13 individuals with wrist-worn activity trackers to 16 without wearable devices. Cardiac stress tests were performed at baseline, after six weeks of organized rehabilitation and after 12 weeks, which included the organized rehab plus six more weeks of self-organized rehab. All participants were men between 40 and 80 years old, had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease (CVD) in the previous three months and were able to participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity.

While the two groups showed similar gains at the midterm examination, the patients with wearable devices improved their relative performance by 7.2 percent during the self-organized rehab period. Over the same span, patients without wearable devices showed a 9.6 percent deterioration in performance, almost returning to baseline levels.

The study group improved relative performance by 19.5 percent over the duration of the trial compared to 4.7 percent for the control group.

“Our findings have implications for the design of self-management approaches in a patient rehabilitation setting,” wrote Jürgen Vogel, with Cardiomed Outpatient Cardiac Rehabilitation Center in Linz, Austria, and colleagues in PLOS One. “In essence, the use of smart wearables can prolong the success of the rehabilitation outside of the organized rehabilitation setting.”

The study participants used a wrist-worn 3D accelerometer that provided a reminder of “it’s time to move” after an hour of sedentary behavior. Weekly steps increased by 31.6 percent from week two to week nine in the study group. Although there were week-to-week fluctuations, a positive trend was observed in both steps taken and kilocalories burned throughout the study. In addition, sedentary behavior decreased from 65 hours per week at the beginning of the trial to 59 hours per week at the end of the study.

Vogel and co-authors suggested the digital trackers “provided motivating feedback, thereby encouraging participants to remain motivated or to further improve activity and sedentary behavior leading towards a healthier lifestyle.”

The researchers said the results may not be generalizable to patients with CVD not undergoing cardiac rehab. They suggested future studies with longer monitoring periods could build on, or revise, their findings.