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Activity trackers ineffective at helping weight loss, study says

People wearing them lost half the weight of those not wearing the devices in a two-year study.

By Stephen Feller
Activity trackers ineffective at helping weight loss, study says
People wearing fitness trackers in a recent study lost half the weight those not wearing them lost, but researchers say the devices may still be useful for specific types of exercise goals aside from weight loss. Photo by BsWei/Shutterstock

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- There are many health-conscious people excitedly checking steps and other statistics tracked by Fitbits and other devices, expecting all the data will help them lose weight. But, according to a new study, fitness devices and their data collection are for naught.

Wearable fitness devices were of no help to people trying to lose weight in a recent study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, and study participants who didn't use the devices lost more weight than those who did, researchers report.

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"The findings of our study are important because effective long-term treatments are needed to address America's obesity epidemic," Dr. John Jakicic, chair of the department of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh and lead researcher on the study, said in a press release. "We've found that questions remain regarding the effectiveness of wearable devices and how to best use them to modify physical activity and diet behaviors in adults seeking weight loss."

For the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers recruited 471 people between age 18 and 35 whose BMI was between 25 and 40, prescribing all of them physical activity, dietary changes and group therapy for six months.

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After six months, 233 participants randomly received access to a website to monitor their diet and physical activity and 237 were given a wearable device and used its accompanying web interface to monitor diet and physical activity. Both groups were then monitored for the next 18 months, with weight measurements taken every six months.

While both groups had similar improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity and diet, the group given devices to monitor their physical activity lost just 7.7 pounds during the 24-month study, compared to an average of 13 pounds lost by the group without devices.

The researchers caution that the participants were all relatively young, so older adults may see greater benefit, and that it is possible using activity trackers has benefits when tied to a specific use -- but overall, they appear to have no benefits for weight loss.

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"While usage of wearable devices is currently a popular method to track physical activity -- steps taken per day or calories burned during a workout -- out findings show that adding them to behavioral counseling or weight loss that includes physical activity and reduced calorie intake does not improve weight loss or physical activity engagement," Jakicic said. "Therefore, within this context, these devices should not be relied upon as tools for weight management in place of effective behavioral counseling for physical activity and diet."

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