A group of people jog together.
Cell phone apps often work just as well as wearable tech. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You see them everywhere nowadays, the black or brightly-colored bands encircling armchair athletes in the grocery store or the gym.

In case you’ve missed it, the fitness-tracker craze is game-ifying our lives, one measured step and counted-calorie at a time.

But according to a recent study, these fitness trackers might be more fashion accessory than fully-featured fitness monitor, and are often trumped by the powerful mini-computers many of us carry around all day, every day: Our cell phones.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the built-in functionality and apps on your smartphone work just as well or even better at measuring your steps and your calories.

The study tracked 14 healthy participants’ activity while wearing 10 different wearables and smartphones using fitness apps. Each participant walked on a treadmill four times, in increments of 500 and 1,500 steps.

The results found that the wearables—including the FitBit One, the Fitbit Zip and the Jawbone Up24—were fairly effective at tracking steps. But the participants also carried smartphones in each of their pants pockets: An Apple iPhone 5s and a Samsung Galaxy S4, which were both using activity apps. In some cases, the phones and apps were more effective that their wearable counterparts.

But the debate over wearables versus apps might be missing the point, said Spectrum Health community health educator Kimberly Delafuente.

“I think there’s a lot of advantages to wearing one,” she said. “It helps to create, number one, awareness to how many steps you’ve taken, and two, it can serve as a reminder to get up and start being active.”

Delafuente said it’s the act of tracking steps, coupled with a competitive element, that makes wearables and apps so appealing from a health perspective.

“We know there’s value in tracking, and tying their information into apps can create some social networks and create some competition,” she said. “The value is in having that constant feedback, as far as how you’re doing, and using that as a motivator. I know a lot of people that look down at it at lunch and know they need to get out and get moving, or maybe do some walking after work.

“Tracking steps has been shown to be the one thing that changes exercise behavior over time.”

Delafuente, for one, has been counting her steps for several years, using something a little more pedestrian: a pedometer.

“I’m old-fashioned; I’ve worn a pedometer for years,” she said. “There’s not necessarily an advantage to spending $150, but people love their tech, absolutely. I think it’s trendy, I think it’s fun, it’s kind of taking something that’s tried and true and reworking it. And there’s some engagement to it. I have coworkers that wear them and they’re checking it throughout the day.”

Anything that gets people up and moving is a good thing, Delafuente explained.

“The average American walks 3,ooo to 5,000 steps a day,” she said. “We know 10,000 steps have been tied to benefits that are health-related. It’s definitely something to shoot for. If they, over time, work themselves up to that, there’s some advantages to doing that.”

Ultimately, Delafuente said, it doesn’t really matter what helps them do it, whether it’s a phone or a FitBit.