To the dismay of many purchasers and users of fitness trackers like Fitbit and other popular brands such as your iPhone, having this very cool, high-tech capability does not in and of itself help you get fit.
They don’t even help you lose weight.
In fact, they may lull you into a sense that you will be able to sustain a healthy lifestyle of physical activity and better dietary habits just by being on your wrist or in your pocket.
So says an article in a September issue of Journal of the American Medical Association, as reported in several fitness and wellness newsletters. Both the American Running and Fitness Association’s Sept-Oct issue of Running & Fitnews and Bottom Line Personal’s December 1 issue covered this story. Many mainstream media outlets covered this as well.
Essentially the researchers set out to see if wearing a tracker helped a cohort of overweight or obese young adults lose weight over a two year span. Mind you, a two year study is expensive and demanding research project, but John Jakicic, Ph.D., is renowned for his long-term studies on weight loss.
Without going into great detail on the study, they split 470 initial subjects into two groups – both did a standard, web-based behavioral mod program for 6 months; then one group simply continued the web-based monitoring while the other used a fitness tracker to keep tabs on their activity and energy expenditure. At the end of the study, only about 75% of the total group completed the work.
Those in the standard program lost on average 13# while the trackers lost on average less than 8#. What gives!!!!!
For the most part, the study concludes that there are no benefits to using a tracker to help you lose weight but that tracking and monitoring diet, exercise and other factors known to help those trying to lose weight are still important.
In other words, regular but not obsessive weighing in, writing down your activity levels, keeping tabs on how much you eat, what you eat, when and where you eat and HOW you feel about things before, during and after eating may be all you really need. Having a fancy piece of technology doesn’t guarantee any more success for weight watching.
As Jakicic said in this interview with NPR, “These technologies are focused on physical activity, like taking steps and getting your heart rate up,” says Jakicic. “People would say, ‘Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.’ And they might eat more than they otherwise would have.”
He also noted that tracking the data from a fitness tracker may motivate some but demotivate others as not meeting a challenging goal may cause some to simply stop trying.
Earlier this year I was interviewed by Reviews.com regarding the benefits and hazards of fitness trackers. My main point was that much of what they track is available to many with simpler technologies – a scale, a watch, etc. – and that they serve primarily those who might be motivated by numbers. What did not get covered in this piece is what I also added – that there are many who buy them but don’t use them for all their worth. And that, with the consequent non-results, demotivates them. Eventually they end up in a drawer next to the stationary bike or treadmill that holds some clothes as they dry.
But seriously, why is it many people don’t get results – weight loss or endurance gains – by using trackers?
I can only guess based on years of experience as a trainer. First, I’d say that the best intentions are simply insufficient when it comes to the very challenging work necessary to see progress in lifestyle changes.
Weight loss is hard; easier for young people, easier for males, easier for those who are genetically-endowed with leanness.
Second, we Westerners, especially we Americans, over-rely on technology to do what simpler mechanisms can do. My favorite if not apocryphal story is about NASA’s research for a pen that would write in zero gravity during the early years of space exploration. In the struggle to outdo the Soviets, we spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to develop a pen. The Soviets simply used a pencil.
Now I don’t know if this is true but the moral of the story is: why use a tracker when all you need is an article of clothing, or a scale, though I personally prefer the former. You see, if you put on a dress or pair of pants that used to fit you, and it’s tight today; and then initiate a weight loss program by whatever means – eating less, eating better, walking more, etc.; and then try the dress or pants on next month, same date, you can see if the program is working. If it fits less snug, you’re losing weight. If not, you’re cheating somehow.
Trackers don’t tell you if you’re walking enough to lose weight. They don’t tell you if you’re moving vigorously enough to burn off the calories you just ate or drank at the New Year’s Eve party. And they don’t tell you to get out of bed and take a walk before work or to not reach for that favorite snack during a stressful day at work. Nothing does that for you.
Only you do it, and it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to tell you if you’re succeeding. And my fear is that you bought this device to rely on it rather than your own willpower, inner strength, or support team – like at Weight Watchers, or among friends and family, or whatever group you use to sustain your program.
And at some point, you’ll lose it without losing the weight you were hoping to lose.
We personal trainers have seen many clients lose and regain. Let us help as one member of your support team. But look in the mirror for the executive producer of that team.
Happy new year and please be reasonable about lifestyle change.