Why RCTs? Part 4

To Fitbit or Not to Fitbit- Does It Make a Difference?

Wearable Fitness Trackers may make us lose less weight

fitbitimageA blasphemous claim, perhaps, considering how attached we can be to these devices. How could you not lose weight clocking more and more steps each day? Don’t Fitbits and other similar trackers give a point and meaning to our exercise or daily routine? What did we do before this technology, which seems beneficial yet all of sudden life-encompassing? (David Sedaris lamented the death of his Fitbit, “Walking twenty-five miles, or even running up the stairs and back, suddenly seemed pointless, since, without the steps being counted and registered, what use were they?”)

This is Part 4 in a series called “Why RCTs?” which explores experiences with and without the benefit of randomized study across disciplines. This installment takes on a gadget most are familiar with, and one that is currently all the rage. What can we learn from new data that challenge our previous understanding of the relationship between technology and our behavior?

Many Americans use Fitbits and similar activity trackers as health aids, and sometimes even as fashion accessories. Some have become mildly obsessed with checking the app repeatedly during the day to see the “count” of steps or stairs approach or even pass their goals. Activity trackers could make us feel as if we are getting enough exercise during our busy days without having to hit the gym. They could encourage us to walk home or to forgo the elevator. Even better than Pokémon-GO!

But if these devices help us get more exercise, then we would also expect them to help us lose weight, right? It’s an encouraging thought that jumps on trends of the decade: personal accountability, healthy living, self-growth, tech, adaptability and busy schedules. It turns out, though, that we shouldn’t be so quick to assume their effectiveness, and recent data suggests otherwise.

An RCT at the University of Pittsburgh tracked the weight loss of over 400 participants for two years. It found that the addition of wearable tech devices for adults with (BMI) between 25 and 40 resulted in less weight loss relative to the control group that attempted to lose weight without the wearable tech devices. The researchers are unsure of what exactly explains this result, but they hypothesize that the gadget might diminish a sense of responsibility in the wearer to monitor their own energy intake. Another thought is that a focus on exercise might fool people into thinking that it’s OK to eat more, even though some research suggests that diet is a bigger driver of weight fluctuation than exercise. So while short term studies have suggested these wearable tech devices are the ways to go — to hold our selves accountable and to stay in the know — more rigorous RCTs suggest that a longer term benefit may not actually exist. Sometimes the “obvious” answer may not be a good fit(bit) after all.

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