Health: Do fitness trackers make us fitter? –

Sep, 3rd 2017 3:43 pm, Article Recommended by Dr. J. Smith

As you read this article, the hand holding the paper or advancing the prompter on a digital version may have some sort of exercise tracker around its wrist. In the past few years, wearable fitness technology has marched its way into many of our lives, 10,000 steps at a time.

Shipments for wearable devices, which include trackers made by Fitbit and Garmin as well as the Apple Watch, topped 100 million units in 2016, according to industry reports. That represents a 25 percent increase over the previous year. And it doesn’t even include the fitness tracking apps built into or downloaded onto our smartphones.

Despite this ubiquity and a market projected to reach $50 billion in annual sales by next year, there’s an overriding question about fitness trackers. Namely, do they actually work?

Of course, I don’t mean that in the literal sense. Engineers have mastered the technology, to the point that gathering data about levels of physical activity is startlingly accurate and easy. Indeed, the technology has become so compact that a Wisconsin company began implanting activity-tracking microchips beneath the skin of employees who volunteered to participate in the program.

But how does that data help a person or an employer?

To date, the studies about the effectiveness of fitness trackers have yielded mixed results. One study published showed that people using fitness trackers increased their step count by almost 1,000 steps a day. That’s not bad, but it equates to only 50 or so extra calories burned per day.

A survey cited in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than half of folks who bought fitness trackers eventually stopped using them, many within six months.

Still, that could be a good thing in light of the results of another study released this past fall. It showed that over an 18-month period, people who wore fitness trackers lost less weight than those who simply monitored their physical activities and caloric intake using a journal.

No, you didn’t misread that last sentence. People actually lost more weight without fitness trackers. The researchers can’t say for certain why this is the case, but a good hypothesis would be the halo effect. In this scenario, because people engage in positive behavior (monitoring their fitness), they might feel a false sense of security that provides a license to indulge a bit (say, have an extra slice of cake).

Of course, we’re still in the nascent stages of fitness trackers. Over the next few years, we should see many more studies analyzing their use and, I hope, forming some sort of consensus about their effectiveness.

On human behavior

Still, they provide an interesting case study on human behavior. Like so many aspects of health-oriented behavior I’m thinking in particular about exercise and nutrition we’ve jumped aboard this train before there’s any evidence-based research showing it’s going anywhere.

Common sense suggests that fitness trackers should be beneficial to our health. But when it comes to health, common sense and the evidence lead in different directions. Remember when we all thought low-fat diets were the way to go? Or that high-cholesterol foods were a no-no?

Because employers are made up of people (duh), they, too, can jump the gun when it comes to encouraging workers to engage in behaviors presumed to be healthy. Indeed, my very own organization may be guilty of this sin.

As part of our wellness program, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has adopted a software platform that encourages employees to link their fitness trackers directly to a web portal. That way, their Fitbits will automatically report their daily activities, which can earn them a cash reward at year-end. Meanwhile, those OMRFers without trackers must manually enter their workouts to qualify.

OMRF is far from alone in encouraging the use of these devices. Indeed, companies like BP, Time Warner, Bank of America and IBM have begun giving Fitbits to employees. The hope is that the devices will improve workers’ overall health and fitness levels, leading to better workplace productivity, fewer absences and reduced health care costs.

As we do at OMRF, these corporations have begun integrating Fitbits into workplace health challenges, encouraging employees to walk a certain number of steps a day or work out regularly. IBM reported that employees who participated in one such challenge logged an average of 8,800 steps per day, more than double the average of people who don’t wear fitness trackers.

This anecdotal report is encouraging. But it falls far short of the kind of rigorous, peer-reviewed research that would show the long-term outcomes when similarly situated people are assigned either to use fitness trackers or not.

Until we have this kind of data, we’ll continue to live by hunches and common sense. The good news is that, in the meantime, there’s probably no downside to wearing a fitness tracker. So long as you pass on that extra slice of cake.

A physician and medical researcher, Prescott is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and can be reached at

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Health: Do fitness trackers make us fitter? –