A Smartwatch Step-Counting App for Older Adults: Development and Evaluation Study


George Boateng, Curtis L. Petersen, David Kotz, Karen L. Fortuna, Rebecca Masutani, and John A. Batsis. A Smartwatch Step-Counting App for Older Adults: Development and Evaluation Study. JMIR Aging, volume 5, number 3, article e33845, 11 pages. JMIR Publications, August 10, 2022. doi:10.2196/33845. ©Copyright the authors.


Background: Older adults who engage in physical activity can reduce their risk of mobility impairment and disability. Short amounts of walking can improve quality of life, physical function, and cardiovascular health. Various programs have been implemented to encourage older adults to engage in physical activity, but sustaining their motivation continues to be a challenge. Ubiquitous devices, such as mobile phones and smartwatches, coupled with machine-learning algorithms, can potentially encourage older adults to be more physically active. Current algorithms that are deployed in consumer devices (eg, Fitbit) are proprietary, often are not tailored to the movements of older adults, and have been shown to be inaccurate in clinical settings. Step-counting algorithms have been developed for smartwatches, but only using data from younger adults and, often, were only validated in controlled laboratory settings.

Objective: We sought to develop and validate a smartwatch step-counting app for older adults and evaluate the algorithm in free-living settings over a long period of time.

Methods: We developed and evaluated a step-counting app for older adults on an open-source wrist-worn device (Amulet). The app includes algorithms to infer the level of physical activity and to count steps. We validated the step-counting algorithm in the lab (counting steps from a video recording, n=20) and in free-living conditions—one 2-day field study (n=6) and two 12-week field studies (using the Fitbit as ground truth, n=16). During app system development, we evaluated 4 walking patterns: normal, fast, up and down a staircase, and intermittent speed. For the field studies, we evaluated 5 different cut-off values for the algorithm, using correlation and error rate as the evaluation metrics.

Results: The step-counting algorithm performed well. In the lab study, for normal walking (R2=0.5), there was a stronger correlation between the Amulet steps and the video-validated steps; for all activities, the Amulet’s count was on average 3.2 (2.1%) steps lower (SD 25.9) than the video-validated count. For the 2-day field study, the best parameter settings led to an association between Amulet and Fitbit (R2=0.989) and 3.1% (SD 25.1) steps lower than Fitbit, respectively. For the 12-week field study, the best parameter setting led to an R2 value of 0.669.

Conclusions: Our findings demonstrate the importance of an iterative process in algorithm development before field-based deployment. This work highlights various challenges and insights involved in developing and validating monitoring systems in real-world settings. Nonetheless, our step-counting app for older adults had good performance relative to the ground truth (a commercial Fitbit step counter). Our app could potentially be used to help improve physical activity among older adults.

Citable with [BibTeX]

Projects: [amulet]

Keywords: [mhealth] [sensors] [wearable]

Available from the publisher: [DOI]

Available from the author: [bib] [pdf]
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[Kotz research]