Monitoring health-- tracking calories, activity, water intake and more-- is hard. Having a wearable device to do these tasks for you makes life easier. At least we thought so!
Scientists have recently released information suggesting that wearable fitness trackers are ineffective in yielding weight loss. Why is this? How can this be true? People of all fitness levels have been spotted sporting these gadgets. What has made these devices hit this sudden shortcoming?
To track or not to track, that is the question
Researchers conducted a trial comparing two groups of people attempting to lose weight-- one group relied on fitness trackers to keep track of their physical activity, while the other group tracked it themselves. At the end of the two-year study, individuals in the group that monitored themselves without fitness trackers lost an average of 13 pounds each, while users in the tracker-utilizing group only lost about 7.7 pounds each.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), all subjects in this study were instructed to eat a low-calorie diet, exercise more, and attend group counseling. After six months, all participants were permitted to utilize telephone counseling sessions instead of in-person sessions, rely on texting alerts, and read health advice materials online. All 470 people involved in the study attended health-counseling events once a week for the first six months and then attended these sessions less frequently towards the last year and a half of the program.
After the first six months, these participants were split into two randomly divided groups. The first group (which we will refer to as Group A) was instructed to track their own food and exercise, and then were responsible for inputting their activity/eating information into an online portal themselves. Meanwhile, Group B was instructed to utilize fitness trackers and their corresponding apps to log their daily food and exercise reports throughout the day.
Trying it out myself
While the study in JAMA concluded that trackers may not help users lose weight any more than they would when following traditional weight loss steps, I needed to see what it was about trackers that made people less likely to lose weight when using them.
Today, I decided to wear my tracker from morning to night, as I usually only wear it during workouts. Would the tracker place any setbacks on me? If it did, would they be substantial enough to restrict weight loss over an extended period of time? Could I find these setbacks within a typical day of going to class, eating, and exercising? Of course, one day is short. But I was very curious to see if I could discover anything to help me figure out why trackers didn’t trigger more weight loss amongst the people who use them.
With my tracker, the goal is to get to 10,000 steps before it vibrates to celebrate your accomplishment. I checked my device about ten times an hour- excited when I completed a lot of steps quickly, and upset at myself when I hadn’t completed nearly enough steps as I had hoped.
I noticed when I got home I felt less motivated to go to the gym. Coming back from campus with too few steps to make me feel satisfied about myself, I felt discouraged that I hadn’t been making as much progress as I’d liked, and in turn, was uninspired for a workout.
Here was the potential problem among fitness trackers (or at least my one-day experience with one): I relied so much on the device to inform me of my steps, heart rate, and burned calories that I wasn’t focusing on being active and feeling well. I wasn’t focusing on what matters: was I walking for a substantial amount of time? Was my heart pumping? Was I feeling healthy? And most importantly, was I living life like I would any other day, or letting the constant burden of fitness-tracking interrupt my time?
All in all, wearing a tracker was something I had always thought helped me get more active. I find it entirely possible that while these devices can certainly be helpful, they can be harmful, too. It’s so easy to let a contraption on your wrist serve as a constant reminder of the healthy steps (literally) you should be taking to lose weight. However, it can also become a ubiquitous burden that obligates us to make healthy choices, leading us to resent them. Perhaps reminding ourselves to be active, eat well, drink water, and track it all ourselves at the end of the day could encourage us to lead a healthy lifestyle without being pressured to do so.
With this study now published in JAMA, popular support for fitness trackers can certainly decrease. As this study is supported by the American Medical Association, people trust the experts behind the extensive research who have discovered the minimal weight loss associated with using fitness trackers in this study. Moreover, we can predict a steady shift in more traditional ways of fitness tracking, as these methods are what helped members of Group A each lose more weight over the two-year period.
Welcome back food journals, calorie-counting applications, and wearable heart-rate monitors-- turns out they were our friends all along!