- New research shows that wearable activity trackers promote positive health changes, helping a wide variety of people move more and lose a modest amount of weight.
- Experts say that while these devices help improve health, weight loss isn’t just about “calories in, calories out,” because a person’s ability to lose weight is often genetic.
- According to the researchers, wearable activity trackers can also fuel unhealthy behaviors in people with anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorders and should be used with caution.
New research claims that wearable activity trackers (WAT) like Fitbit or Garmin actually encourage people to exercise more.
The full-scale review, recently published in
According to the researchers, the global WAT market has seen “prodigious” growth, with the number of activity trackers shipped worldwide increasing by more than 1,000% between 2014 and 2020.
“Since activity trackers are increasingly used in society, research into their effectiveness has rapidly expanded,” said UniSA lead researcher and PhD student. Ty Ferguson, told Healthline. “We realized now was the perfect time to bring all of this knowledge together and see if there was an overarching message about their usefulness as health tools.”
UniSA researchers reviewed nearly 400 studies involving approximately 164,000 participants worldwide using WATs to monitor their physical activity levels.
The studies involved people of all ages who used an activity tracker, including a pedometer, accelerometer, activity monitor or step counting smartphone app, to encourage more exercise.
Their findings indicate that WATs encourage people to walk up to 40 minutes more each day or about 1,800 more steps, and resulted in an average weight loss of 1 kg (2.2 lbs) over 5 months.
“What was a nice surprise was how useful they were for such a wide variety of people, including all ages, healthy people, and those living with a variety of chronic conditions,” said said Ferguson.
What wasn’t surprising, he added, is that activity trackers produce a positive change in physical activity. “They are a form of external feedback, which we know is beneficial in motivating positive health changes,” Ferguson said.
When asked if these devices were gimmicks or fads, he confirmed that they help.
“These are definitely not gimmicks,” Quebbemann said. “They help you track trends, consistency, rough intensity level, and effort.”
Quebbemann added that WATs also help track fitness. “You can compare the intensity of your workouts over time and changes in your cardiovascular fitness,” he said.
“They’re good for comparing your exercise intensity; which means they can tell you that your run today was more intense than yesterday. But they are less accurate in comparing one exercise, say push-ups, to another, say cycling.
You “can’t trick your Fitbit”
As for people who may slack off on their workouts but claim they’re still in great shape, Quebbemann said “you can’t fool your Fitbit.”
“Let’s say you run 5 times a week for 3 months, and you get sick and skip a month. When you start running again, an exercise monitor will show you that your heart rate is increasing at a much slower rate than before, you’re not running as far or as fast as before, and your total calorie burn is much lower. ,” Quebbemann explained.
Simply increasing activity levels isn’t enough for many people to lose weight, Quebbemann says, and this “calorie intake, calorie intake” is only part of the equation.
“Rate of calories burned at rest, change in calories burned with exercise, [the] the propensity to store excess calories, the balance of your gut bacteria, your hormonal balance, etc., all affect your weight,” he said.
Quebbemann also noted that medical science proves that genetics and environment have as powerful an effect on a person’s weight as the amount of exercise they do.
“That doesn’t mean exercise doesn’t help with weight loss, or that being sedentary doesn’t cause weight gain,” he said. “What this means is that your ability to lose weight through exercise is determined to a large extent by your genes.”
People with moderate and severe anxiety disorders may want to use WATs with caution, said Jeff LeiningerIP, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California.
He said neuroscience points to a “dysregulated serotonin system” for people with active eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
“This dysregulation combined with increased psychosocial stressors causes individuals to focus on their thoughts and behaviors,” he added.
Leininger said his “hunch” is that someone who uses a wearable fitness tracker and lives with OCD can increasingly focus on their anxious thoughts and fears about fitness.
“Perhaps unfounded concerns [are] rooted in a deep belief that they’re not good enough and therefore don’t know how to exercise properly,” he said, adding that it could exacerbate anxiety and lead to behaviors unhealthy.
dr. Jessica Folkedirector of bariatric surgery at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York, said WAT research is very important as changes in health care focus more on disease prevention strategies.
She pointed out that according to the
“A wearable device tracker in combination with lifestyle interventions has great potential for health promotion,” Folek said.
“Studies showing that these trackers have an overall positive effect on increasing physical activity show the benefits they can have in reducing sedentary behaviors and as a tool to help positively impact public health.”
Wearable trackers are widely touted for monitoring physical activity and motivating people to move, and new research shows these devices can also encourage people to exercise more daily.
While wearable activity trackers can help promote weight loss, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone loses weight the same way. Factors such as a person’s age, gender, height, and eating habits can all influence weight loss.
Whether you’re aiming to lose weight or just stay active and healthy, wearable activity trackers could help you achieve your goals.