A new study into the effectiveness of fitness trackers for weight loss found the wearable devices may not be as helpful as previously thought. And in fact, they may even have the opposite effect.
In the new report published September 20 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh wanted to see if wearable devices would help people more effectively lose weight over a long period of time. Although earlier studies have shown tracking devices to be effective in achieving weight loss goals, the current study’s authors contend a majority of those studies are only short term. Hence the need for a longer study, particularly since the tricky part of weight loss is keeping extra pounds off over an extended period of time.
Led by Dr. John Jakicic, the team recruited 470 overweight, young adults between the ages 18 and 35 – an age group the researchers suspected would be more likely to embrace technology like wearable fitness trackers – for a two-year study.
For the first six months, everyone in the study was taught how to set a new low-calorie diet and put on an exercise program that was designed to gradually ramp up moderate to vigorous exercise activity over time. During this time period, all participants in the study lost a significant amount of weight.
After six months, participants were randomly divided into two group. One group continued with a more traditional weight loss regime, in which they monitored and self-reported their diet and exercise activity by themselves. Participants in the second group were given a fitness tracker and access to a commercial website they could use to log their physical activity and weight loss.
The results of the study were surprising to Jakicic and his team. After 12 months, the group who followed the traditional, non-technology weight loss program had kept more weight off than the group using trackers, a trend that continued to be true for the remainder of the study.
By the end of two years, participants wearing the tracking device had lost some weight, but significantly less than the people who were not using them. Those who did not use the wearable technology lost and kept off an average of 13 pounds, while those who used a tracking device lost only an average of 7.7 pounds.
“The addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioral intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months,” concluded the study. “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches.”
The study did not answer why those who wore the trackers lost less weight than the other group, but Jakicic and his team proposed a few theories. One possibility is that those who did wear the tracking devices and could see their physical activity throughout the day, may have developed a false sense of security. For example, someone might reason that because they know they walked a lot in a given day, that they then could eat more.
On the other hand, Jakicic suggests wearable’s may not be encouraging enough, particularly for those who are already struggling with weight loss. Those who wore the tracker might have become disheartened if they did not reach their daily goals, causing them to give up on their overall weight loss goals.
“It is demotivating because they see how hard it is,” said Jakicic. “These devices provide information on activity and energy expenditure, but provide very little meaningful information that can really result in behavior change.”
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 used for the study, BodyMedia Fit, has since been discontinued, and it’s possible a newer and more advanced tracking device might have worked 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.
While this study does cast doubt on the idea that wearable fitness devices are better than a traditional weight loss regimen, Jakicic said the effectiveness of fitness trackers ultimately depends on the person using them. “For some people these types of things are extremely motivating and might be exactly what they need,” he said. “For other people they may be ineffective.”
Jakicic hopes the study shows people that there are other key behaviors that are important for weight loss, behaviors people should continue to focus on for long-term success – like eating well and exercising.