Re-Examining the Health Benefits of Fitness Trackers

by in Fitness, January 1, 2017

Do you wear a fitness tracker, a doohickey that counts the steps you take and/or the calories you burn every day? If so, you’re in good company. An estimated 21 percent of U.S. Internet-connected adults — yep, more than one in five — use some form of wearable technology, according to research firm Forrester.

Although some pricier wearable fitness trackers promise complicated analytics, most people use wearable fitness trackers to count steps or track distance “with a weight loss goal in mind,” says nutrition consultant, registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and Healthy Eats contributor Dana Angelo White.

A clinical trial conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, suggests those wearable fitness trackers may not actually help us lose weight. In fact, the study indicated, just the opposite may be true. The devices may actually backfire, prompting people to eat more and undercutting weight-loss efforts. “It’s somewhat common for people to use exercise as an excuse to overindulge,” White notes.

The study’s research team put 471 overweight study participants on a low-calorie diet and urged them to exercise more, providing them with support such as group counseling. All began to lose weight. After about six months, half the study cohort was asked to self-report their diet and exercise behaviors; the other half was given wearable devices to monitor them. Two years later, both groups remained active, but those who were using the fitness trackers lost less weight than those who were not, prompting the researchers to conclude that “devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches. 

Don’t toss that Fitbit (or Jawbone or Apple Watch or whatever) in a drawer and forget about it just yet, though, because another new study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and cited by The New York Times, suggests that people who wear activity monitors and use them to ensure they get about 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week have about a 35 percent lower likelihood of premature death than those whose activity trackers indicate they get less exercise than that.

In other words, a wearable fitness tracker may not help you lose weight — but wearing it and using it to make sure you get about 30 minutes of exercise most days a week could help you live longer.

The bottom line, White says, is that while avid exercisers often meet their goals without fitness trackers, others may find the devices helpful in boosting motivation — and anything that gets people to move more is a great thing. “If you’re a competitive person, I think they work especially well,” she says, but she advises trying something basic to start — “nothing too fancy or expensive.”

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.

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