It’s been two years since the Fitbit tracker emerged as the must-have holiday gift item of 2014, leading thousands of gym rats and couch potatoes alike to their nearest superstore to purchase the wearable devices.
The sleek wristband seemed to promise instant health with its calorie tracker, heart rate monitor and step-counting pedometer. But recent research has led some to wonder whether the Fitbit and the dozens of other wearable fitness devices that have hit the market in recent years are really worth the $100 to $500 price tag.
In a study published last month in the journal JAMA, researchers strapped an upper arm tracker onto half of the participants in a clinical trial, while the other participants were instructed to self-monitor their diet and physical activity using a website.
After a 24-month period, the group without the fitness trackers had lost 13 pounds, while the group with the trackers lost only 7.7 pounds.
Many health experts insist that wearable fitness trackers are great for general fitness but less than optimal for weight loss because the gadgets themselves usually don’t include a robust diet-tracking function. Others believe they should be used in conjunction with more-aggressive interventions, such as fitness coaching.
Whatever the case, local health experts said there’s no need to retire the trackers just yet. They may not be the miracle solutions they were cracked up to be, but they can make a difference with the right amount of support.
Here are their tips on how to make a Fitbit, or any other wearable tracker, work to your advantage.
Steps toward dieting
It’s always a good thing when a fitness tracker prompts someone to take the stairs or go for a walk around the office so they can hit their 10,000-step mark for the day, said Sacramento personal trainer Monica Monedero. It improves their circulation and gets their joints moving in a healthy way – but it won’t necessarily lead to a drop in pounds, she said.
Sometimes it even has the opposite effect. Fitness trackers, with their tendency to praise wearers for good work, can give people a false sense of confidence and make them feel justified in eating more, experts said.
“Increasing your steps is great for cardio and toning up your body and, yes, you do burn more calories, but there’s a good chance you’re eating more calories because you’re justifying it with that you’re exercising more,” Monedero said. “Unless you’re training for a triathlon, it’s probably not enough.”
People who are intent on losing weight really need to look at their diet, said Dr. John Hernried, medical director of The Hernried Center for Medical Weight Loss in Sacramento. A healthful diet is a crucial part of any weight-loss plan, he said, and without one a fitness tracker won’t have much clout. Many fitness trackers interface with dieting apps such as MyFitnessPal, a feature that Hernried encourages people to take advantage of.
“We’re big advocates of saying you can’t just wear it, you have to do something with it,” Hernried said. “For weight loss and weight-loss management, tracking your diet is key.”
Don’t give up
The fitness tracker’s biggest enemy might be the human tendency to call it quits, said information technology expert Dennis Bonilla.
As dean of the University of Phoenix’s College of Information Systems and Technology, Bonilla has been studying fitness trackers since they got big a few years ago. He doesn’t see them fading out anytime soon and expects they will continue evolving to excite weight-loss hopefuls.
Unfortunately, people make the assumption that they don’t have to do much while wearing the trackers, Bonilla said. A recent study in the journal The Lancet found that on average, participants wearing Fitbit Zip activity trackers for one year recorded only 16 more minutes of physical activity per week than the participants who did not wear trackers during the same period.
“The tracker is just a monitor,” he said. “You still have to not be lazy and get stuff done to use it as a fitness tool.”
The problem, experts said, is that many people simply give up and take the tracker off. A third of U.S. consumers who have owned a fitness tracker stop using the device within six months of receiving it, according to a 2014 study from consulting firm Endeavour Partners.
“It can go wrong when people get tired of it,” Monedero said. “They don’t want to do it, it’s not making them work anymore. At first you’re all gung-ho, and then after a while they don’t really care and they stop.”
Find a buddy
The solution to overeating with a Fitbit or giving up on the Fitbit entirely could be finding someone to keep you on track, Hernried said.
While most fitness trackers collect tons of data – body temperature, top heart rate, sleep cycles and more – not everyone looks at it. Those who do go through the effort of opening up the data tracking functions might not know what they’re looking at, he said. That’s where doctors and trainers come in.
“You have to have some human element,” he said. “While the patient is adding calories or logging exercise, we’re able to watch them do that. It really helps that we can actively engage that data.”
Another trick? Get your friends on board. Experts say connecting to friends and co-workers on wearable networks can encourage healthy competition and keep wearers accountable.
“People who are motivated by external rewards, and most people are, it works really well for that,” Monedero said. “Try to start some healthy competitions between you and your friends, and be willing to put it out there and not hide it.”