Wearable technology — those gadgets people wear around their wrist to track their heart rate or number of steps walked or run — is all the rage. This sort of personal data tracking is especially popular among younger people and those who exercise regularly. Whether it’s a Fitbit, Nike+ Fuelband, a Garmin Vivofit, or some other fitness tracker, people love the ability to easily track their progress over time.
But if you’re wearing one of these devices while trying to lose weight, you may find it surprising that wearable technology likely won’t help you — and could even hurt (a little) in your weight-loss journey.
Can Fitbit & Other Wearables Help You Lose Weight?
Science, of course, can help us answer this question. The latest study to shed light on this area was published in the journal JAMA in September 2016, by Jakicic et al., and followed 470 younger adults (ages 18 to 35) over the course of two years. In this randomized clinical trial, researchers placed 233 subjects in the standard intervention group and 237 people in the enhanced intervention group (whose members eventually wore a wearable technology device to help track their progress). Just over 74 percent of people completed the study.
All participants in the study were placed on a low-calorie diet, prescribed a certain amount of physical activity per week, and had group counseling sessions. At the six-month mark, both groups added telephone counseling sessions, text message prompts, and access to study materials on a website.
At the same six-month mark, participants who were in the standard intervention group started self-monitoring of diet and physical activity using a website. Those randomly assigned to the enhanced intervention group were provided with a wearable device and accompanying web interface to monitor diet and physical activity.
At the end of two years, both groups had significant improvements in their physical fitness, activity, and diet, as well as their physical composition.
The surprising finding was that for members of the group who wore a wearable such as a Fitbit, they lost a little less than half the weight of the standard intervention group. The standard group lost an average of 13 lbs. compared to the wearable group’s of just over 7 lbs. That’s a significant 41 percent difference.
To be clear, this study found that if you sport a wearable such as a Fitbit in your efforts to lose weight, you will actually lose significantly less weight than if you didn’t wear the fitness tracker. You will still lose weight — assuming you stick to the exercise, diet, and other things the study provided participants, such as group counseling. You’ll just lose less weight than if you hadn’t bothered with the Fitbit in the first place.
Why would technology work against the user in this way?
It could be discouraging for some people to see their objective fitness numbers on days they don’t exercise as much as they normally do. The numbers could also encourage individuals to eat a little bit more than they normally would, since they can review their efforts in real-time — something not typically possible without a fitness tracker. “Hey, I did an extra 10 percent in my workout today! I deserve a special treat!” the thinking might go.
The Dangers of Technology Before Research
This study points out a significant problem facing our culture today. Technology moves much faster than the research that’s needed in order to prove whether the technology’s benefits are real or not. Not only is this true in the case of wearables, but virtually every health app available for download today lacks research support for its intended use. There are virtually no long-term studies on the impact of this kind of technology — the JAMA study being one of the very few available today.
Lacking the necessary research foundation, these technology tools encourage consumers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on things that may provide little actual benefit. You could look at it much like those brain-training programs that were all the rage a few years ago — programs that had very little actual research backing the specific tools for their marketed benefits. Worse yet, a study published earlier in 2016 (Murakami et al., 2016) found that some fitness trackers may wildly misstate calorie counts.
Technology is sadly all-too-often taking the role of the new snake oil, marketed not by sideshow hucksters, but by multinational technology companies who see a large sales opportunity with little risk. Nobody seems to care that not only do many of these apps and technologies not work quite in the way they are marketed, but they may actually cause you trouble in your efforts to improve or change a part of your life.
Our recommendation? Feel free to use fitness trackers, but don’t obsess over the numbers they provide, or believe they’re giving you any kind of permission to indulge on a day the numbers say you’ve expended more calories. Take their numbers with a grain of salt. Focus on eating a healthy diet, cut down on snacks and sweets, and exercise regularly — with or without a fitness tracker.
John M. Jakicic, Kelliann K. Davis, Renee J. Rogers, et al. (2016). Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 316, 1161-1171. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.12858
Murakami H, Kawakami R, Nakae S, Nakata Y, Ishikawa-Takata K, Tanaka S, Miyachi M. Accuracy of Wearable Devices for Estimating Total Energy Expenditure Comparison With Metabolic Chamber and Doubly Labeled Water Method. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(5):702-703. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0152