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Fitness Trackers: Helping us Get Fit or Just Another Gadget?

Nowadays, one in five Americans owns fitness trackers like a Fitbit, Garmin, Xiaomi Mi Band, Apple Watch or other similar devices. People love the idea of a new gadget that they “need” to buy, in this case, to get fit, but the question of whether or not these devices actually work is definitely up for debate.

What Science is Saying About Fitness Trackers

There have been several studies that have discovered that fitness trackers won’t necessarily help you get fit faster than simply doing it on your own.

In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a 2-year study from the University of Pittsburgh, aimed at comparing “technology-enhanced weight loss” (with the use of fitness trackers) to “standard behavioural weight loss” (without trackers).

Over 24 months, 470 adults participated in the study (233 in the standard group, 237 in the enhanced group). The results determined that the group using smart trackers didn’t lose as much weight as the group without (3.5 kg vs 5.9kg).

Later a second study, published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, also showed that trackers didn’t help people move more, or get healthier.

Researchers at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School challenged 800 workers with a target of 70,000 steps per week for 1 year. One group was given Fitbit Zips and another group Zips plus a cash bonus each week they hit their step goals. The control group got nothing except simple encouragement to walk more!

For the first 6 months, the money worked, but the Fitbits alone didn’t. The Fitbit-plus-cash group put in 29 more minutes of moderate physical activity a week than the control group, but the Fitbit-only group barely moved more than the control group.

Dollar bills stacked

After that, it all went downhill: by the end, 90% of Fitbit users abandoned their devices and furthermore, the improvements in health and weight were negligible.

How to interpret the results?

So both these studies have come back with some pretty negative results, how did this happen?

Well according to the lead author on the Pittsburgh study, John Jakicic:

“These technologies are focused on physical activity, like taking steps and getting your heart rate up, people would say, ‘Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.’ And they might eat more than they otherwise would have.”

This is understandable but surely there must be a reason so many people have invested in smart trackers other than our obsession with wearable tech?

The point is that these devices will work, for some people. That is to say that too many people go and buy these devices hoping they’ll motivate them to move more, but this just isn’t the case; consumers misperceive what are in fact data trackers as motivational tools.

“Fitness trackers are equivalent to a bathroom scale,” says Eric Finkelstein, lead author of the Lancet study. “They’re a measurement tool, not an intervention tool. They tell you something, but don’t give you a strategy for how to change it.”

Should You Still Go Out and Buy Fitness Trackers?

As I said before, the usefulness of these devices varies from person to person, if you think that receiving a bunch of data about how much you’re moving on a regular basis will motivate to stay active then sure! But if you’re expecting the equivalent of a personal coach on your wrist then think again.

However, these companies are making efforts to improve the motivation aspect to their devices, like Apple’s activity rings, or some devices allowing you to compare your data to your friends and family. If these companies keep innovating which they undoubtedly will, the choice will become easier.

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