Study suggests your fitness tracker may not assist in weight loss

Bruce Brown
Study suggests your fitness tracker may not assist in weight loss
A two-year study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found participants with fitness trackers lost less weight than those without. Trackers may work well for some, but may interfere with weight loss goals for others.

Don’t count on a snazzy new fitness tracker to help you lose weight. Sometimes they hinder success, according to Ars Technica.

The results of a two-year study of fitness trackers were just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The researchers found that overweight young adults who had started to lose weight and then added a fitness tracker actually put on more weight over time than did participants who stuck with diet and exercise without a wearable device.

Related: The truth about fitness trackers is that the buck stops with you

In all, 471 overweight adults aged 18 to 35 who wanted to lose weight were followed in the study. The participants had Body Mass Index (BMI) scores from 25 to less than 40 and an average weight of 210 pounds. The study ran from October 2010 to October 2012.

During the first six months of the study, all participants were put on low-calorie diets and prescribed fitness plans. They also logged their progress in diet diaries and attended weekly group sessions. At the end of six months, all had lost weight, 17-19 pounds on average.

For the next 18 months, 237 of the participants were given fitness tracker armbands with a website on which to monitor their diet and physical activity. A second group of 233 participants self-monitored their diet and physical activity using a website, but without a fitness wearable.

At the end of the study, after a total of 24 months, many had regained some of the weight loss from the 6-month initial period. Those who used fitness trackers ended the study eight pounds lighter on average than when they started the 24-month study. Those who did not use wearables weighed on average 13 pounds less than in the beginning. So people who didn’t use wearables lost an average of 5 more pounds than those who did.

The arm-band tracker the wearable group used was a BodyMedia Fit mobile and web interface. Jawbone bought BodyMedia in 2013 and stopped making the Fit wearable and shut down the website in January 2016, according to Mobile Health News. The study was not a test of the specific wearable, however, but a study of the effect of wearable tracking technology overall.

In trying to interpret the results of the study, when comparing the addition of wearables to conventional weight loss programs, the lead researcher, John Jakicic, of the University of Pittsburgh told  JAMA, “I think we have to be a little bit cautious about simply thinking that what we can do is just add technology to these already effective interventions and expect better results.”

It’s possible some participants saw their accumulated activity data and took it as an OK to eat more or to make poor food choices. Some may have felt disheartened if they couldn’t keep up with their activity level goals, leading them to give up.

More studies are needed before making final conclusions, which is pretty much always the case with scientific studies and research. Jakicic said it may be a good idea to test different types of devices, but “Probably more importantly, [we should] try to understand for whom and when these devices are actually very effective.” Some may find fitness trackers helpful, but others may be thwarted in their hopes of losing weight.