Fitness Trackers Don’t Work?

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I own a FitBit and that I use it quite a bit.  So, imagine my surprise when I saw headlines like this in my news feed this morning:

New Study Says Fitness Trackers Don’t Help Dieters

Fitness Trackers Don’t Foster Weight Loss, Study Finds

Weight Loss On Your Wrist? Fitness Trackers May Not Help

Needless to say, I was curious.  After all, it seems to work well for me.  So I tracked down the study to see what it had to say.  You can read it yourself – look for Effect of  Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial on the Journal of the American Medical Association website.  From the abstract, here’s how the study worked:

Participants were placed on a low-calorie diet, prescribed increases in physical activity, and had group counseling sessions. At 6 months, the interventions added telephone counseling sessions, text message prompts, and access to study materials on a website. At 6 months, participants randomized to the standard intervention group initiated self-monitoring of diet and physical activity using a website, and those randomized to the enhanced intervention group were provided with a wearable device and accompanying web interface to monitor diet and physical activity.

The conclusion of the study?

Among young adults with a BMI between 25 and less than 40, the addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioral intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months. Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches.

When looking at something like this, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s just one study.  The study itself states that

Additional investigation is also needed to examine for whom wearable devices and other technologies may be effective within the context of weight loss efforts and how these technologies influence other components of weight loss, namely, eating behavior and dietary intake.

In other words, the study isn’t saying that fitness trackers are worthless garbage that should be discarded.  It’s saying that more research needs to be done to determine the most effective way to integrate them into a weight loss program.  But here’s something else that’s interesting.  Assuming I’m interpreting the charts right (and I think I am), the “enhanced” group (the group with the trackers) consumed fewer calories than the standard group, once they passed the six month mark and started using the trackers, but also did less exercise.

Here’s where I speculate, based on my own experience.  Fitness trackers can provide an illusion of exercise, simply by tracking your movements.  If you’re having to manually track your exercise, you probably aren’t counting in things like “I walked from my bed to the bathroom” as exercise.  You’re tracking times you actively went out and walked or ran, or the times you spend working out.  The tracker can make you lazy, if you rely on it and don’t have a back-up plan to make sure you exercise.

Again, I’m not a research physician.  But I think this explains the evidence from the study.  Both groups lost weight, after all.  The tracker wasn’t worthless.  But the group that had to manually track things lost more weight.

So, what does this mean for my weight loss efforts?  Well, in a word, nothing.  I’m not in the age range from the study, and the study authors state that “the study sample was restricted to young adults, so results cannot be generalized to other ages”.  More importantly, though, my weight loss program isn’t the same sort of structured group program that the study utilized – it’s more of a hybrid between the two groups described in the study.  I use the FitBit, yes, but I don’t depend on it for all of my data about my exercise and weight loss.  I also make use of self-reported tracking that is manually input into a different system.

Ultimately – and this is my personal experience talking again – I think that further study will indicate that fitness trackers have benefits.  But I think that further study will also show us the optimal way to use them as part of a fitness program.  They’re just a tool, after all.  And no single tool will change your life all by itself.

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