- New research shows that wearable activity trackers promote positive health changes, helping a wide range of people get more exercise and lose a modest amount of weight.
- Experts say that while these devices help improve health, there’s more to weight loss than “calories in, calories out” because a person’s ability to lose weight is often genetic.
- Wearable activity trackers can also encourage unhealthy behaviors in people with anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder, researchers say, and should be used with caution.
New research confirms that wearable activity trackers (WATs) like Fitbit or Garmin really do encourage people to exercise more.
The large-scale review, recently published in
According to researchers, the global market for WATs has grown “enormously” with the number of activity trackers shipped worldwide increasing by over 1,000% between 2014 and 2020.
“Because activity trackers have become so widely used in society, research into their effectiveness has increased rapidly,” lead researcher and UniSA graduate student Ty Ferguson told Healthline. “We realized that now is a good time to bring all this knowledge together and see if there is a general statement about their usefulness as health tools.”
UniSA researchers reviewed nearly 400 studies involving approximately 164,000 participants worldwide that used WATs to monitor their physical activity.
The studies involved people of all ages who used an activity tracker with a pedometer, accelerometer, activity monitor, or a smartphone step-counting application to encourage more exercise.
Their results show that WATs encouraged people to walk up to 40 minutes longer each day, or about 1,800 more steps, and resulted in an average weight loss of 1 kg (2.2 lbs) over 5 months.
“A nice surprise has been how helpful they have been for such a wide variety of people, including people of all ages, healthy people, and people with a variety of chronic conditions,” Ferguson said.
What’s not surprising, he added, is that activity trackers produce a positive change in physical activity. “They’re a form of external feedback that we know is beneficial in motivating positive health changes,” Ferguson said.
dr Brian Quebbemann, founder of the NEW program and author of Dietary Rebuild, described WATs as “moderately accurate.”
When asked if these devices were gimmicks or fads, he confirmed that they help.
“These are definitely not gimmicks,” said Quebbemann. “They help you track trends, consistency, approximate intensity levels, and effort.”
Quebbemann added that WATs also help track fitness. “You can compare the intensity of your exercise over time and changes in your cardiovascular fitness,” he said.
“You are good at comparing the intensity of your training; That means they can tell you that your run today was more intense than your run yesterday. But they are less accurate in comparing one exercise, say push-ups, to another, say cycling.”
You can’t fool your Fitbit
Regarding people who slack off in exercise but claim they’re still in good shape, Quebbemann said, “You can’t fool your Fitbit.”
“Suppose you run 5 times a week for 3 months and you get sick and skip a month. When you start running again, an exercise tracker shows you that your heart rate is increasing much more slowly than before, that you’re not running as far or as fast as before, and that your total calorie burn is much lower. ‘ Quebbemann explained.
According to Quebbemann, for many people simply increasing activity levels isn’t enough to lose weight, and “calories in, calories out” is only part of the equation.
“Rate of resting calorie burn, change in exercise calorie burn, [the] Your propensity to store excess calories, your gut bacterial balance, your hormone balance and more affect your weight,” he said.
Quebbemann also noted that medical science proves that genetics and environment have as strong an impact on a person’s weight as the amount of exercise they do.
“This doesn’t mean that exercise doesn’t contribute to weight loss or that sedentary lifestyle doesn’t cause weight gain,” he said. “What it means is that your ability to lose weight through exercise is determined in large part by your genes.”
Individuals with moderate and severe anxiety disorders may want to use WATs with caution, said Jeff Leininger, NP, a psychiatric nurse at Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California.
He said that neuroscience points to a “dysregulated serotonin system” in people with active eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
“This dysregulation combined with increased psychosocial stressors causes people to become fixated on thoughts and behaviors,” he added.
Leininger said his “guess” is that someone who uses a wearable fitness tracker and lives with OCD may become increasingly fixated on their anxious thoughts and fears around fitness.
“Perhaps unfounded worries [are] They’re imbued with a core belief that they’re not good enough and therefore don’t know how to exercise properly,” he said, adding that this could exacerbate anxiety and lead to unhealthy behavior.
dr Jessica Folek, director of bariatric surgery at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York, said that research into WATs is very important as healthcare delivery becomes more focused on disease prevention strategies.
She pointed out that according to
“A wearable device tracker combined with lifestyle interventions has great potential for health promotion,” said Folek.
“Studies showing that these trackers have an overall positive effect on increasing physical activity demonstrate the benefit they can have in reducing sedentary behavior and as a tool to positively impact public health.”
Wearable trackers are widely touted to monitor physical activity and motivate people to exercise, and new research shows these devices can also encourage people to exercise more every day.
While wearable activity trackers can help with weight loss, it’s important to remember that not everyone loses weight the same way. Factors such as a person’s age, gender, height, and eating habits can all affect weight loss.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or just want to stay active and healthy, wearable activity trackers can help you reach your goals.