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Do Fitness Trackers Help You Lose Weight?

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Fitness trackers are growing in popularity. As affordable and portable devices, they provide a real time feedback mechanism for those who wish to track their health and fitness metrics. At face value they allow us to track the data that elite athletes and even physicians use – and that makes them a must have for many fitness fans.

Although the majority of current users utilize wearable technology to improve fitness, an increasing number of users are purchasing these devices to help them lose weight.

But new research suggests that these high-tech gadgets might not be as effective as once thought. Read on to find out why wearable fitness trackers might not be the key to a healthier, fitter you.


What are Fitness Trackers?

Many years ago there was a increase in the use of pedometers – small, portable devices that measured step counts. These were arguably one of the first mainstream health trackers. They provided an indirect way for people to measure health and activity. They were simple and difficult to get wrong.

Since then there has been a boom in wearable technology. Devices that measure motion and track your movements using satellite technology. They use integrated sensors to monitor intensities, frequencies and speeds of motion and relay all of this back to you in table and chart format allowing you to track your activity levels and progress.

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker [1] the first quarter of 2016 sales reached 19.7 million – an increase of 67.2% from 2015. A National US survey also reported that in 2012, 69% of people tracked at least one health marker [2] – and this was before the popularity boom.

Typically worn on the wrist, these devices measure not only your daily step count, but everything from your heart rate to the distances covered in a day and calories burned.

Different brands allow you to monitor different aspects of activity, with some even allowing feedback about the quality of your sleep patterns via a process called actigraphy – this method essentially translates movements of the wrist against heart rate to estimate sleep quality. Some also have a built-in interface to record and monitor diet too.

These integrated services are now everywhere. With the takeover of mapped technology you don’t even need a wrist device to obtain basic biofeedback. Most smart watches have built in health apps. Even if you didn’t want to purchase a wearable, similar technology is accessible to most.


accelerometer-for-heart-rate

Can Fitness Trackers Help You Lose Weight?

At present, wearables are more likely to be purchased by those who already lead a healthy lifestyle [3]. However, as user engagement increases it is likely that many people will purchase a device solely for the purpose of helping them lose weight.

Although a limited field of research, some studies linking wearable tech to weight loss have found some potentially promising results.

For example, a study by Pellegrini et al [4] found that when combined with a standard weight loss approach of diet and exercise, volunteers lost on average 8.8kg over a 6-month period. This was in comparison to the 3.7kg in the group that relied on diet and exercise alone.

Interestingly, 100% of volunteers kept up their activity levels when using the tracker, in comparison to only 53% who were only dieting and exercising.

A similar study published in Obesity [5] split a group of 57 volunteers into three groups:

  • Group 1: Diet and exercise only
  • Group 2: Diet, exercise and intermittent use of fitness wearable – weeks 1, 5 and 9 only
  • Group 3: Diet, exercise and continuous use of fitness wearable – all 12 weeks

The results found that Group 1 lost 4.1kg, Group 2 lost 3.4kg and Group 3 lost 6.2kg – which is a significant amount more. The authors concluded that wearables may be useful when used continuously, but may have a negative impact when used on an occasional basis. 

Another recent study, published in JAMA , also assessed if fitness wearables helped with positive changes to body composition. The authors wanted to see if the addition of a fitness tracker would increase weight loss. The results though aren’t promising [6].

471 overweight or obese volunteers were tracked over a 2-year period. Each of the participants was put on a low-calorie diet, asked to increase their activity levels, and asked to attend group counseling sessions. At the 6-month mark, the group were split into one of two groups:

  • Group 1: Self-monitoring of diet and activity levels
  • Group 2: Wearable device and web interface to measure diet and activity levels

At the 2-year mark, both groups had improved their body composition, fitness, physical activity and diet – but there were no differences between groups.  

Overall, the volunteers in group 2 lost less weight than the non-wearable group. They lost an average of 7.7lb in comparison to groups 2 who lost an average of 13lb – that’s a big difference. And it pretty much says that wearables don’t work to improve weight loss. 

Although the data doesn’t seem convincing, the wearable technology industry is moving very quickly – and the equipment used in this study was not the same as modern tech currently seen on the high street.

The upper arm, automatic data collection unit did not offer real-time access to data or the social network support that many fitness wearables now on offer. These results should be taken with caution, and trackers should not be dismissed at this stage until further research is made available. 


fitness-health-trackers

Summary – Wearable Technology and Weight Loss

A fitness tracker is a type of wearable technology that uses integrated sensors to measure a number of biometrics. These include heart rate, daily step count, energy expenditure, dietary intake and sleep quality.

These devices are part of an emerging technology currently experiencing a massive market growth. They are used by not only athletes, but recreational exercisers wanting to improve their health, fitness and body composition too. The line between professional sport, medical technology and the average person wanting to lose weight is becoming grayer and harder to distinguish.

There is a limited amount of research on how wearables affect weight loss, but the studies that are available do not show convincing results. These trackers should not replace a well-planned and effective diet and physical activity program – they should at best supplement it as a resource to chart overall productivity and progress. More research is needed to clarify just how useful they are for improving weight loss.


References

  1. International Data Corporation (IDC), Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker. 16 May 2016. http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS41284516
  2. Fox S, Duggan M. Tracking for Health. Pew Research Center, Pew Internet and American Life Project. 2013
  3. Juniper Research. Smart Wearable Devices. Fitness, Healthcare, Entertainment & Enterprise 2013–2018.; 2013. http://www.juniperresearch.com/reports/Smart_Wearable_Devices 
  4. Pelligrini, CA et al. The comparison of a technology-based system and an in-person behavioral weight loss intervention. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012 Feb; 20(2): 356-63
  5. Polzien, KM et al. The efficacy of a technology-based system in a short-term behavioral weight loss intervention. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007; 15(4): 825-30
  6. Jakicic, JM et al. Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss. JAMA. 2016; 316(11): 1161-1171