Are you a step-counting fanatic? If so, you’re not alone. According to research company CCS Insight, UK sales of activity trackers are expected to reach five million, with ten million devices expected to be in use before the end of this year. Nowadays there’s a mind-boggling array of options on the market, all claiming to be invaluable tools in making your weight loss dreams a reality. From activity trackers to smart watches, the list of wearable tech appears endless, as does the list of tracking options – you can get gadgets to monitor everything from what you eat to how many hours you sleep for to the quality of the air your breathe.
However, there have actually been very few studies into the efficacy of such gadgets when it comes to weight loss and improving fitness – which is why the latest piece of research published on the portable tech is so interesting.
A two-year long study, carried out by the University of Pittsburgh and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at 500 overweight volunteers, all of whom were asked to diet and take more exercise. Half were given a fitness tracker, half were not.
The results were somewhat surprising: the group without the tracker had actually lost, on average, 5lb (2.3kg) more than the tracker group by the end of the study. Whereas the volunteers with the tracker lost an average of 8lb (3.6kg), the tech-free group lost an average of 13lb (5.9kg).
Although the researchers say there are many possible explanations for the finding, there is no definitive proof one way or another.
Lead researcher Dr. John Jakicic said: "People have a tendency to use gadgets like these for a while and then lose interest with time as the novelty wears off. And we did see a drop off in the usage data as the study went on."
He also suggested that people who use fitness trackers could become too fixated on exercise goals, and fail to give enough attention to their diet.
"You might think to yourself, 'I'm being so active I can eat a cupcake now,'" he said.
There are obvious flaws in the study, though, and these are acknowledged by the researchers themselves. To start with, everyone is different – whilst some people may find tracking motivating and helpful in pursuing a particular fitness goal, others may find the endless numbers and targets discouraging and depressing, especially if they’ve set their goals unrealistically high.
The study is also somewhat artificial in that it focuses on a group who do not normally buy fitness trackers. In actuality, the gadgets are far more likely to be purchased by people who already lead active and healthy lifestyles, which means the results may differ in the real world.
Equally, Dr. David Ellis, a psychologist at Lancaster University, has pointed out that it is not normal to get the level of support that the volunteers did when it comes to losing weight. Most people have to go it alone, in which case perhaps a tracking device may be better than nothing.
Manufacturers of tracking devices of this kind have stated that the technology has evolved and improved since the study, and that their own research suggests the devices can help weight loss alongside diet and exercise regimes. Dr. Jakicic did acknowledge that the technology had moved on, but did not believe this would alter the findings
"What these devices tell us and how we use the information has not changed," he said.
The verdict? Don’t throw out your Fitbit just yet, as lots more research needs to be done. But don’t expect miracles from it, either. What the study suggests is that over reliance on technology, in lieu of focusing on the good old-fashioned combination of diet and exercise, may be causing problems for some. So make sure your priorities are right – and don’t get hung up on the numbers.
By Kate Gadner