How Effective Are Activity Trackers for Weight Loss?

By Tracey Dowdy

Are you wearing a fitness tracker? A new study published in the American Medical Association Journal concluded that activity trackers may not be living up to all they promise. Researchers found that individuals wearing activity trackers in fact lost less weight than those that didn’t.

The results were surprising as researchers “anticipated that those with the activity trackers would lose more weight across the 24 months,” said study co-author John Jakicic, a weight-management researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. “When we found just the opposite this was very surprising.”

The study followed 471 overweight or obese individuals aged 18-35 years over a two-year period. Each participant followed a program of exercise, ate a healthy diet and participated in weekly support meetings. Six months into the study, one group started utilizing a website to track calorie intake and exercise, while individuals in the second group were given fitness trackers commercially available and designed to be worn on the upper arm.

Fast forward two years. The individuals using fitness trackers lost an average of 8lbs while those tracking diet and fitness goals online dropped 13lbs. Note: The study did not include a control group of individuals that were offered no online or wearable tech weight loss interventions.

While the study may be disheartening for anyone using an activity tracker, it’s important to consider several things not documented by the study results. One, participants still lost weight. Losing less weight than another individual is less important than the impact a healthier lifestyle will have long-term. Speaking of long-term, it is yet to be seen which group maintains their fitness goals and lifestyle changes over time. Will those logging on to a website be more inclined to continue or will it be the individuals who are seeing “results” in real time as their tracker logs steps, heart rate, and calories burned?

Furthermore, “the importance of examining effective weight loss strategies for young adults is supported by a recent report showing that this age demographic has a prevalence of obesity (32.3%) higher than the prevalence in youth 12 to 19 years of age (20.5%) but lower than that found in middle-aged adults (40.2%). This may suggest that young adulthood is an important transition period for weight gain and the development of obesity.” In other words, developing a healthy lifestyle when you’re younger bodes well for avoiding obesity in middle age regardless of the methods used. Again, focus on the bigger picture. Both groups improved their overall health.

Regardless of your approach, it takes more than diet or exercise on their own to maintain a healthy body. Exercise can be undermined by a poor diet and inadequate nutrition hinders peak physical ability. Food should be seen as fuel, not a reward.

Obviously, whether you choose wearable tech is a personal choice. If it motivates you and helps you stay on track, by all means get one. There are a lot of great options available. As Jakicic said, “Regardless, if you wear a device like this and it helps you to become more active and manage your weight better, by all means keep doing that.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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