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Why fitness trackers don’t actually help you lose weight

Are you still sticking to your resolution to be more fit? Our tech guy Mike Agerbo talks about wearable fitness trackers and watches.

Wearing a fitness tracker to help you lose weight? Simply counting the steps you’ve taken and how many calories you’ve burned will get you nowhere when it comes to weight loss, a new study is warning.

After a two-year study, University of Pittsburgh researchers learned that people who rely on fitness trackers lose less weight than their peers who don’t shell out for the wearable technology on their wrists. Most of these gadgets range from $100 to $300.

“Weight loss is much more complex than simply monitoring activity with a device and encouraging individuals to do more. There is an eating component that if not considered can easily wipe out the energy expenditure of physical activity,” Dr. John Jakicic, the study’s lead author, told Global News.

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He said these fitness devices don’t factor in the daily struggles people face with trying to eat healthy or what happens when they cave. A device that spits out numbers doesn’t advise you when you’re slipping up or offer strategies to help you overcome problems either, Jakicic said.

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“[People] should not be discouraged and this does not mean that those devices are not helpful in some way. What this suggests is that relying solely on these devices may not be as effective as making sure that you pay attention to all the key behaviours for weight loss,” Jakicic said.

READ MORE: How inaccurate is your fitness tracker in counting calories? Scientists weigh in

Jakicic and his team worked with 470 people between the ages of 18 and 35 who had a body mass index of about 25 to 39, which fall under the “overweight” and “class 1 obesity” categories.

All 470 people were placed on low-calorie diets, had to exercise and received group counselling on health and nutrition. Every six months they had their weight recorded.

But the participants were split into two groups after six months: half of the group kept up with health counselling on a monthly basis while the others received a fitness tracker to help them monitor calories burned and physical activity.

READ MORE: Trying to lose weight? Here’s how many calories you cut with each glass of water

By 18 months, those who still had counselling lost twice as much weight compared to their peers left with a fitness tracker.

Ultimately, they lost about 13 pounds on average compared to the nearly eight-pound-average.

A FitBit Charge costs about $169 while a vivofit costs about $139. So are they a worthy investment?

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“[Fitness trackers] may have worked the opposite of what one might have expected … they may also give a false sense of security by showing the activity that was performed which may result in some people thinking they can eat more than they should. There may be a lot of reasons that we need to better understand,” Jakicic said.

FitBit told NPR that it’s standing by its product.

“We are confident in the positive results users have seen from the Fitbit platform, including our wearable devices,” the company said in a statement in response to Tuesday’s findings.

(To be clear, Jakicic used the BodyMedia Fit, which was a high-end device when the study started. “The components in that device are similar – if not better – than what is currently available commercially,” he told Global News.)

READ MORE: Fasting for weight loss? Here’s why scientists say it works long-term

Jakicic said his study is novel: past research only zeroed in one short-term weight loss, while a two-year study gives a clearer snapshot.

His findings were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It isn’t the first time scientists have had a closer look at the efficacy of fitness trackers.

READ MORE: This food will make you feel fuller if you’re trying to lose weight

In a study out in March, Japanese researchers looked at eight different devices, from the Fitbit Flex to the Jawbone UP24.

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In that study, they found that fitness trackers are way off when logging calories burned – to the tune of 278 calories.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca