Fitness trackers might make weight loss programs less effective

Workout fitness tracker wearable

Before starting a weight loss program, you might be tempted to go pick up a new wearable fitness tracker.

It seems to make sense: A device that keeps track of what you’re doing has to help you hit your fitness goals, right?

Maybe not. Adding those devices to your regimen may actually be less effective than sticking to a more traditional and non-technologically enhanced weight loss program, at least according a new study published September 20 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Young adults in the two-year study who didn’t use wearable devices to track their workouts lost on average five pounds more than participants who had the trackers.

Following the data

The researchers behind the study write that they wanted to see if wearable devices would help people more effectively lose weight over a long period of time. While other studies showing tracking devices to be effective exist, many of those studies are only short term, according to the authors. Since the tricky part of weight loss is keeping extra pounds off over an extended period of time, longer studies are needed.

The team conducted the study at the University of Pittsburgh and recruited 471 young adults, aged 18-35, all with body mass indexes indicating they were in the overweight or obese range. The researchers also measured characteristics like body fat percentage, lean mass, bone density, and cardiovascular fitness, which is helpful, since there are reasons to criticise BMI as a solo indicator of fitness.

For the first six months, everyone in the study was told how to set a new diet and put on an exercise program that was designed to gradually ramp up moderate to vigorous exercise activity over time. Participants met weekly for this time period.

Fitness workout

After six months, participants were randomly divided into two groups: one group continued to self-report their diet and exercise notes on a website and the other participants were given a fitness tracker and access to a commercial website so they could use the tracker to log physical activity and continue to self-report dietary information. Both groups received weekly text messages and a monthly call from staff to check on their progress.

Both groups lost significant weight over the first six months, though there wasn’t a significant differences between the two. By 12 months, the group on the standard non-wearable intervention had kept more weight off than the group using trackers, something which continued to be true at follow ups after 18 and 24 months.

Neither group kept off all the weight they initially lost, but on average, people using wearable trackers lost and kept off an average of 7.7 pounds, while people doing a “standard” weight loss intervention lost and kept off an average of 13 pounds.

So are fitness trackers bogus?

In the study, the authors conclude: “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioural weight loss approaches.”

So does this mean that wearables are useless?

Exercise workout fitness running beach happy

Not necessarily. For one thing, people using wearable devices did lose weight, even if they didn’t lose as much as the people on the standard program. The also showed improvements in the other measures like body fat that researchers looked at.

It’s also possible that using another fitness tracker or using it in a different way would have been more effective. Participants for this study enrolled between 2010 and 2012, with data collection finishing by 2014. The specific tracking system they used has been discontinued, and it’s possible another system might work better. The researchers also note that that perhaps it could have been more effective if the participants who used the tracker had used it from the beginning of the study.

However this study does cast doubt on the idea that devices like this are necessarily better than a traditional weight loss regimen of any kind.

Just like for most things diet and fitness, the solution is probably not a product or a pill. In some cases those things might help, but none of them is magically effective in isolation.

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