Now after tracking 25 million steps, my weight is almost the same. Did closing all those rings really do anything?
Researchers have been asking this question for nearly a decade. What they tell me: Buying a fitness tracker or smartwatch won’t help you lose weight. In fact—yes—wearing a gadget can even hurt your efforts.
Exercise is great for you, and if your tracker helps keep you moving, by all means keep wearing it. But like many other wellness products, trackers have been marketed with more hype than evidence.
Research moves slowly in academia, but the most notable study of the health outcomes of fitness trackers was published in 2016 from Singapore. It found that people who wore Fitbits maintained their physical activity slightly better than a control group without them – but after a year, it wasn’t enough to cause changes in weight or blood pressure.
The central premise of the trackers is that “if you give people information, they will do something to change their behavior,” says John Jackic of the University of Kansas Medical Center, who studies obesity and weight regulation. But that doesn’t happen after the initial focus wears off, he says.
“When we give people tools, it usually doesn’t change their behavior,” he says. “And if it does, it changes it for a very short period of time — maybe about 2 to 3 months, maybe a little longer — before the thing on your wrist goes into a drawer or you’re on it. Stop paying attention.”
Jacic helped conduct one of the largest controlled studies of tracker tech, published in 2016 by the University of Pittsburgh. It found that dieting adults who wore a simple activity monitor for 18 months lost weight compared to those who didn’t. People who wore the device also generally moved less.
One theory: Just the act of measuring your body can change the psychological experience of being active. A 2016 study by Duke University’s Jordan Aitken found that measuring can weaken the “intrinsic motivation” of activities like going for a walk, making it feel like work and reducing sustained engagement in the activity. Is. “They can’t motivate you,” says Etkin.
We don’t yet understand how they affect people in different ways. Some people with trackers are motivated by competing with friends and family members to move the most. But for others, seeing their watch report that they’ve had a lazy day can contribute to self-sabotage. A 2017 study of teenagers found that trackers negatively increased peer pressure and were demotivating.
I saw the potential—and shortcomings—of the Apple Watch when I returned from parental leave last year. A few weeks after resuming work, which involves long hours at the computer, Apple’s Health app displayed a warning: My steps and standing hours had fallen off a cliff. I joked that my Apple Watch thought my work was killing me.
That was a useful heads up. But what was I supposed to do about it? My watch also had no insight into what my new goals should be. Finally, I learned from other parents the joys of taking a walk after work with a baby. What works for you, and what doesn’t? Email me.
What do tracker makers say?
Apple told me it doesn’t track research on weight loss because it’s not the focus of the Apple Watch. (This is disappointing.) But Apple pointed me to a 2018 RAND Corporation study of programs that reward people for meeting specific goals with their watches. These people increased their monthly activity days by an average of 34%, and this continued after the end of the program.
Google-owned Fitbit said its devices are useful for an overall view of your health, including weight management. This pointed me to a 2020 analysis of 37 controlled trials that found that using Fitbits during interventions was associated with both weight loss and increases in step count and moderate-to-vigorous activity.
But in the majority of these trials, people wearing Fitbits were also given other materials and support.
According to Arizona State University’s Matt Bowman, gadgets alone “don’t provide the extra support needed for long-term, sustainable behavior change — things like social support or goal setting, observing other people’s behavior like you and action planning.” says that.
How Weight Watchers Use Trackers
If anyone had figured out how to use activity trackers, I thought it might be Weight Watchers, also known as WW. Today, about 40 percent of its members use trackers to automatically enter exercise data into their programs, says chief scientific officer Gary Foster.
Yet the company hasn’t linked their use to better weight loss results, in part because people don’t use them consistently. What this could mean, Foster told me, is that wearing a tracker makes it easier to stay on top of your exercise.
But a fitness gadget still can’t automate what Foster considers the most important data for weight loss: what you eat. Foster says he gets a call about once a quarter from people with a new idea for a gadget to measure food and drink, such as a sensor on teeth, but “not yet.”
The bottom line, Foster says: “Tracking your activity will have little or no impact without the surround sound support of what to do with that information.”
If the controversy surrounding TikTok’s Chinese ownership makes you uncomfortable, you can help protect yourself by giving it less data about you. A good place to start: not sharing your contacts.
Tap Settings → Privacy → Sync contacts and Facebook friends and make sure both are turned off. If you’ve previously shared them, you can also remove them here.
Further reading: Is TikTok Really Giving Your Data to China?
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