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A Fitness Tracker for Weight Loss? Will It Help?

What an exciting day! You want to lose those extra pounds, so you just bought a shiny new fitness tracker to help. You read the reviews and picked the right one. The tracker is gonna be the difference.

But… It turns out that the fitness tracker (also called an activity tracker) may not be the magic solution. This, in spite of its nifty features such as step counting, movement tracking and maybe even heart rate and sleep monitoring.


Science Seeks Answers

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to know how fitness trackers affect weight loss. So they recruited 500 volunteers who were overweight. The volunteers would be part of the effort to collect facts about trackers and weight loss. The volunteers ranged in age from 18 to 35. This age group would likely have a smaller learning curve for using the tracker technology.

At the start of the two-year study, the volunteers participated in a weigh in and fitness assessment.

For the first six months of the study, the volunteers:

  • Followed a low-calorie diet designed to help them steadily lose weight.
  • Were encouraged to engage in at least 100 minutes of weekly moderate activity.
  • Kept daily diaries of their food intake and exercise activities.
  • Participated in weekly counseling to guide them in their weight-loss efforts.

After six months, there was a second weigh in. All the volunteers had lost weight.

Then they started the actual experiment!

The volunteers were divided into two groups.

  • One group was instructed to log their exercise activities on a special website for the study.
  • The other group received a fitness tracker that would record their physical activities and give them feedback about progress toward goals. The device also provided info such as how many calories they burned.

Counselors checked in with the volunteers occasionally via the phone or texts. The counselors encouraged all participants in their weight loss efforts.

18 months later, the participants returned to the lab to repeat the measurements taken at the very beginning of the experiment.

Most volunteers had lost weight since the study’s initial weigh in. However, many had regained weight since the second weigh in.

  • The group that logged their exercise without a tracker were 13 pounds lighter than they were at the initial weigh in.
  • The group that was given fitness trackers were 8 pounds lighter than their weight at the initial weigh in.

What caused the unexpected difference? The study’s lead author, Dr. John Jakicic of the University of Pittsburgh, has some theories. It could be that when tracker wearers felt they would come up short of their daily exercise goals, they may have lost motivation and become less active, which would affect weight loss.

Another possibility would be that the tracker group was more inclined to exercise. Extra exercise may have prompted an increased appetite. Eating more would affect weight loss.


How a Fitness Tracker Can Help

Can trackers help you? Dr. Jakicic says he wears a tracker as a fitness tool.

It’s important to note that the study participants who used fitness trackers did lose weight.

A tracker can help by providing:

  • Motivation — Some trackers link to an associated web application. Feedback from the tracker and an application can be additional motivation.
  • Accountability — Feedback from a tracker can help hold the user more accountable for reaching her or his own activity goals.
  • Sleep monitoring — Some trackers monitor your sleep quality. Since sleep is essential to your health, a device that lets you know about your sleep patterns can reveal if you have sleep issues you may not even be aware of.

Whatever motivates you to eat wisely and stay active will boost your health. If a fitness tracker helps with that, go for it!

Exercise activities can help with weight loss, heart health, reducing your risks of diseases such as cancer and even slowing the progress of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.


If you’d like to be more active, visit with your health care provider about ways to get started. And watch Aurora’s Facebook page for additional fitness tips. It’s never too late to get going!

Meet the Author

Michael L. Otte, MD is a family medicine physician at Aurora Health Center - Germantown.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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