• 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 do help improve health, there’s more to weight loss than ‘calories in, calories out,’ as a person’s ability to lose weight is often genetic.
  • According to researchers, wearable activity trackers may also fuel unhealthy behaviors in people with anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder and should be used with caution.

New research affirms that wearable activity trackers (WATs) like Fitbit or Garmin really do encourage people to exercise more.

The large-scale review, recently published in The Lancetby University of South Australia (UniSA) researchers, shows that WATs “consistently outperformed controls for physical activity outcomes.”

According to researchers, the global market for WATs has grown “tremendously,” with the number of activity trackers shipped worldwide increasing by over 1,000% between 2014 and 2020.

“Since activity trackers are becoming so widely used in society, research into their effectiveness has grown rapidly,” lead researcher and UniSA PhD candidate Ty Ferguson, told Healthline. “We realized now was a great time to pull all this knowledge together and see if there is an overall message on their utility as health tools.”

UniSA researchers reviewed nearly 400 studies involving about 164,000 participants worldwide using WATs to monitor their physical activity levels.

The studies involved people of any age who used an activity tracker including a pedometer, accelerometer, activity monitor, or a step-counting smartphone application, to encourage more exercise.

Their findings indicate that WATs encourage people to walk up to 40 minutes more each day or roughly 1,800 more steps, and resulted in an average weight loss of 1kg (2.2 lbs) over 5 months.

“What was a nice surprise is just how helpful they were for such a wide variety of people, including all ages, healthy people, and those living with a variety of chronic conditions,” said Ferguson.

What wasn’t surprising, he added, was that activity trackers produce a positive change in physical activity. “They are a form of external feedback, which we know is beneficial for motivating positive health changes,” Ferguson said.

Dr. Brian Quebbemann, founder of the N.E.W. Program and author of “Dietary Rebuild,” described WATs as “moderately accurate.”

When asked if these devices are gimmicks or fads, he confirmed they do help.

“They are definitely not gimmicks,” Quebbemann said. “They help you track trends, consistency, approximate intensity level, and effort.”

Quebbemann added that WATs also help track fitness. “You can compare the intensity of your workouts over time and the changes in your cardiovascular fitness,” he said.

“They are good at comparing the intensity of your exercise; meaning they can tell you that your run today was more intense than your run yesterday. But they are less accurate at comparing one exercise, push-ups for example, to another, say bicycling.”

You ‘can’t fool your Fitbit’

With regards to individuals who may slack on their workouts but claim they’re still in great shape, Quebbemann said “you can’t fool your Fitbit.”

“Say you’re running 5 times per week for 3 months, and you get sick and skip a month. When you begin running again, an exercise tracker will show you that your heart rate gets higher at a much slower pace than before, that you don’t run as far nor as fast as before, and that your total calorie burn is much less,” Quebbemann explained.

According to Quebbemann, simply increasing activity levels isn’t enough for many individuals to lose weight, and that “calorie in, calories out” is only part of the equation.

“Rate of calorie burn at rest, change in calorie burn with exercise, [the] propensity to store excess calories, your intestinal bacteria balance, your hormone balance, and more, all affect your weight,” he said.

Quebbemann also noted that medical science is proving that genetics and environment have as powerful an effect on a person’s weight as does the amount of exercise they do.

“This doesn’t mean exercise doesn’t contribute to weight loss, or that being sedentary doesn’t cause weight gain,” he said. “What it does mean is your ability to lose weight with exercise is determined to a large extent by your genes.”

Individuals experiencing moderate and severe anxiety disorders may want to use WATs with caution, said Jeff Leininger, NP, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California.

He said that 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 cause individuals to fixate on thoughts and behaviors,” he added.

Leininger said his “hunch” is that someone who uses a wearable fitness tracker and lives with OCD may increasingly fixate on their anxious thoughts and fears around fitness.

“Perhaps unfounded worries [are] steeped in a core belief that they aren’t good enough and therefore they don’t know how to exercise correctly,” he said, adding that this could exacerbate anxiety and lead to unhealthy behaviors.

Dr. Jessica Folek, director of bariatric surgery at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York, said that research on WATs is very important as healthcare shifts focus more on disease prevention strategies.

She pointed out that according to the World Health Organization (WHO), sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, including an elevated risk of:

“A wearable device tracker in combination with lifestyle interventions has great potential for health promotion,” Folek said.

“Studies demonstrating that these trackers overall have a positive effect on increasing physical activity show the benefit these can have in reducing sedentary behavior 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 may also encourage people to exercise more on a daily basis.

While wearable activity trackers may help promote weight loss, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone loses weight in the same way. Factors including a person’s age, sex, height, and eating patterns may all influence weight loss.

Whether you’re aiming to lose weight or simply stay active and healthy, wearable activity trackers could help you meet your goals.

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