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Study: Wearable fitness trackers, step counters help users lose weight

While research-level trackers are more accurate, researchers say that commercial fitness trackers -- such as the Fitbit, pictured -- can help overweight and obese people lose weight if they set goals and allow the devices to guide them. File Photo by A. Aleksandravicius/Shutterstock.com
While research-level trackers are more accurate, researchers say that commercial fitness trackers -- such as the Fitbit, pictured -- can help overweight and obese people lose weight if they set goals and allow the devices to guide them. File Photo by A. Aleksandravicius/Shutterstock.com

March 17 (UPI) -- Wearable fitness trackers and step counters can help people who are overweight or have weight-related health issues shed up to 10 pounds on average, an analysis published Wednesday by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found.

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Those who used research-grade step counters and accelerometers for at least 12 weeks lost an average of that amount, while people working with commercially available fitness trackers dropped an average of just over 6 pounds, the data showed.

Although research-grade step counters and accelerometers, or electronic devices that measure speed and acceleration, aren't available to the public, many wearable fitness trackers are, the researchers said.

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These devices "represent a practical option for people who are overweight or obese and who have weight-related conditions," they said.

"While both commercial and research-oriented devices were effective for weight control, commercial wearables like the Fitbit are affordable, easily accessible and, based on our findings, require no other components to be effective," study co-author D.J. McDonough told UPI in an email.

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"We believe it is important for everyone to monitor their health. Those with obesity ... could benefit from increased daily physical activity levels [guided by] these devices," said McDonough, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota's Physical Activity Epidemiology Laboratory in Minneapolis.

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More than 1.9 billion adults around the world are overweight and another 600 million are obese or severely overweight, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition, health conditions associated with excess weight are responsible for about 70% of deaths and 85% of healthcare costs annually in the United States, McDonough and his colleagues said.

Physical inactivity makes it more difficult to lose weight, but only about 5% of adults nationally meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended physical activity levels, the agency estimates.

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For this study, the researchers analyzed data from 31 relevant clinical trials that assessed the use of fitness trackers and step counters and their effects on weight loss and weight-related health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnea.

The included trials were published between 2007 and 2020 and involved a total of 2,268 people.

The trackers used in the studies included the Fitbit, SenseWear Armband, Jawbone, Polar smartwatches, Samsung Charm, FitMeter and Withings Pulse, as well as various wearable motion sensors.

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Each study required participants to set and meet goals based on daily steps or to reach the CDC's recommended weekly minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity, usually brisk walking, according to the researchers.

Research-grade step counters and accelerometers, available only for use in clinical trials, helped participants lose, an average of 10 pounds, while commercially available fitness trackers average weight loss of just over 6 pounds.

However, all of the wearable devices included in the analysis helped their users lose weight, with programs at least 12 weeks producing the best results, the researchers said.

The devices are effective because they "allow users to set and track ... health-related goals and provide constant reminders to get up and move to achieve [them]," according to the researchers.

Even modest 5% to 10% reductions in body weight have been shown to alleviate health problems associated with being overweight or obese, they said.

"For those using commercial health wearable devices, especially with the intent to improve their health, we recommend utilizing their main features and doing so consistently," McDonough said.

"Set goals as far as physical activity or calories burned per day," he said.

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