Activity Trackers Not Reliable for Weight Loss

Issue Date: 
October 3, 2016

Wearable devices that monitor physical activity are not reliable tools for weight loss, according to a study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Department of Health and Physical Activity. The research looked at whether adding activity-tracking technology to a behavioral counseling program would improve weight loss over a two-year period.  

The results showed that people who wore an activity tracker and participated in a behavioral weight loss program lost less weight than those who participated in only the behavioral weight loss program. In fact, over the 24-month period, participants without physical activity trackers showed nearly twice the weight loss—an average of 13 pounds—compared with a loss of 7.7 pounds for participants who wore the fitness trackers.

Researchers concluded that the use of activity monitors does not offer an advantage over standard weight-loss approaches that include behavioral counseling on physical activity and diet. Thus, while these devices facilitate easy tracking of physical activity, they may not enhance adherence to the tenets of a healthy lifestyle, which is the most important aspect of any weight-loss regiment. 

“While usage of wearable devices is currently a popular method to track physical activity—steps taken per day or calories burned during a workout—our findings show that adding them to behavioral counseling for weight loss that includes physical activity and reduced calorie intake does not improve weight loss or physical activity engagement,” said John Jakicic, the study’s lead researcher and chair of Pitt’s Department of Health and Physical Activity in the School of Education. “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.”

The study, “Effect of Wearable Technology Combined with a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-Term Weight Loss: the IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial,” was published in the Sept. 20 edition of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association

The research followed 470 individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 who had a body mass index between 25 and 39 at the start of the trial. About 77 percent of participants were women, and 29 percent were from non-white communities. 

All participants were placed on low-calorie diets, prescribed increases in physical activity, and received group-counseling sessions on health and nutrition. They participated in weekly health-counseling sessions for the initial six months and less frequent counseling during the last 18 months. Weight was assessed at six-month intervals throughout the 24-month trial.

At the first six-month mark, participants were divided into two subgroups: one that continued health-counseling sessions on a monthly basis and another that received a fitness-monitoring device as well as health-counseling sessions.

Over the course of the subsequent 18 months, both groups showed significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity, and diet, with no significant difference between groups. However, those who received health counseling throughout the study lost nearly twice as much weight as those who used wearable devices for three-quarters of it. 

“The findings of our study are important because effective long-term treatments are needed to address America’s obesity epidemic,” said Jakicic. “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.” 

Other Pitt faculty researchers involved in the study were Kelliann K. Davis, Renee J. Rogers, Wendy C. King, Marsha D. Marcus, Abdus S. Wahed, and Steven H. Belle.