There are at least a dozen to choose from: Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, Withings, Motorola. They come in wristbands, sport watches, and pocket clip ons with price ranges of $50 to $200. But do personal activity trackers actually help people lose weight and live healthier? Studies say the answer to that question just may be yes.
An Indiana University study found that people who wore pedometers daily walked 16 percent more than they did prior to wearing the device, and lost an average 2.5 pounds. Jeanne Johnston, PhD, is the study author and says that when a person sees real-time data during the day that shows how active or inactive they are it can help change behavior.
Accelerometry-based activity monitors, also called accelerometers, work by detecting movement throughout the day. The gadgets are basically very advanced pedometers that can pair with mobile apps or Web accounts, smart scales, or blood pressure monitors. Companion apps allow the user to log the food they eat, and compare calories in to calories out.
The trackers allow setting daily goals: how many steps, how many calories, how much distance. The trackers and companion apps advise when those goals have been reached.
The theory behind personal activity trackers is that they will help the wearer to adopt a healthier lifestyle, increasing physical activity and even losing weight, by showing just how much activity they actually get during the day through tracking steps, miles, calories burned, even sleep patterns. Some will even nudge the user if they have been inactive for too long.
So do personal activity trackers help motivated people reach their goals of better health and/or weight loss? Or do they just provide tons of useless data?
If personal activity trackers do what they claim they should definitely help people alter diet and exercise habits in order to lose weight and live healthier.
WebMD says people who track their activity are more successful at losing weight.
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, is a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. She also says people who log their food and activity are more successful at losing weight. She suggests that at the beginning of a weight loss plan just track the number of daily steps or minutes of activity. Then set goals to increase steps or intensity and track it.
Muth also advises using the sleep monitoring function, because people are less likely to overeat or give up an exercise plan if they get enough sleep. Some trackers show how long a person has slept and when they are restless, so they can try to determine what may be interfering with a good night’s sleep.
Ray Browning, assistant professor of exercise science, led a study at Colorado State University to determine the accuracy of fitness activity tracker energy expenditures data. The study found that the devices accurately estimate strenuous activities like running or walking, but were not so accurate tracking the energy spent on light tasks like folding laundry, which still keep you moving but do not involve steps.
But this does not mean that the devices are useless, even though not 100% accurate. Study participants in a UK survey sponsored by Fitbit said the motivational prompts on their smartphones had significant impact on their actions. So fitness trackers may be the incentive needed to start a fitter and healthier lifestyle, even if not absolutely precise.
Mayo Clinic researcher Gabriel Koepp says awareness is the biggest benefit of fitness trackers. Most people have no idea how many steps they take each day, and may be surprised at how inactive they actually are once they start tracking. Koepp thinks being aware of daily activity levels may encourage making healthy lifestyle changes. For instance, taking the stairs, or parking farther away at the grocery stores.
Women’s Health offers the following suggestions for how to use personal fitness trackers for the best results:
Be skeptical: Sometime the trackers misread activity. For instance, they may underestimate cycling exercise because the arms are more stationary, but they may overestimate energy expenditures with activities that are actually sedentary, such as typing, because they involve arm movements. The trackers should be used as a rough gauge, not an absolute.
Share the Wealth: Use the social aspects of the devices to compete with friends or encourage each other by sharing updates.
Use reminders: Let the device prompt you to let you know you have been sitting too long or have not reached step goals.
Be consistent: Wear the device daily to get an accurate picture of typical activity, not just a snapshot here and there.
Although some researchers are skeptical as to whether personal activity trackers actually work to lose weight and adopt healthier lifestyles, many studies show that they do. Trackers may be just the motivation needed to make the changes.
By Beth A. Balen