Your new fitness tracker will not work miracles

It’s been two weeks since you got that new Fitbit, Apple Watch or other fitness tracker for the holidays and one week since you resolved to use it to get more active, manage your weight or reach other health goals.

Congratulations — and good luck. The truth is that the link between owning a fitness tracker and getting fitter isn’t as straightforward as many people might hope.

“If you put a scale in someone’s bathroom, that doesn’t mean they are going to lose weight,” says Timothy Church, professor of preventative medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. “The tracker isn’t going to tie your running shoes and move your feet.”

It also won’t work if you stop wearing it or if you use all that shiny new step-counting and calorie-burning data to convince yourself that you are making more progress than you really are.

Those are among the pitfalls researchers are finding as they look at whether the tracking trend is likely to put a dent in the nation’s inactivity and obesity problems. Results from two of the biggest studies so far, published 2016, were not encouraging.

In one study, reported in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, participants given clip-on Fitbits modestly increased physical activity if they were also given cash incentives. But the changes were not enough to affect weight, blood pressure or other health outcomes. And when the cash flow stopped, most people stopped using the trackers. That’s in line with survey data showing half of people stop using fitness trackers within a year or so.

In another study, published in JAMA, young adults in a comprehensive two-year weight loss program lost less weight than other participants if they used an arm band device to track activity levels, calorie burn, heart rate and other metrics.

The device used is in the study is no longer made. While it is possible results might be different with a more up-to-date tracker, study author John Jakicic is skeptical. Interviews with participants suggested one big problem was that the stat-keeping gave many a false sense of accomplishment, he says.

“What we heard from people is ‘Look how much activity I’m getting — I can have another cupcake,’ “ says Jakicic, a professor of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Still, many researchers believe trackers have promise. People insufficiently motivated by today’s devices and apps may respond to future versions that incorporate more game-like challenges and rewards, Church says: “You’ve got to make it fun.”

Church says he was encouraged by all the people who got moving in 2016 thanks to the Pokemon Go mobile app — even though a study showed those bursts of activity stalled after six weeks. “It was proof of concept,” he says.

People who are motivated to use today’s trackers can be reassured that “they really do a pretty effective job of letting people quantify their lifestyle habits,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “But there appears to be a gap between monitoring your habits and actually changing them.”

For now, here’s the best advice for new users:

• Get a baseline. Start by seeing how many steps you get in a day, without adding any new activities. That “has a real educational value because most people don’t know,” and may be overestimating, says Lisa Gualtieri, an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University. If you look at calorie-burning numbers, keep in mind that they tend to be much less accurate than step counts, Church says.

Set a personal goal. The popular idea that everyone needs 10,000 steps a day is unsupported by evidence and unrealistic for many sedentary people, says Mitesh Patel, an assistant professor of medicine and health care management at the University of Pennsylvania. “The average person in the United States is starting closer to 5,000,” he says. “Doubling that on Day 1 is just too hard.”  Instead, try adding 2,000 steps. If you are at 8,000 or above, add intensity — walk faster, mix in some running, climb more stairs. (Most trackers count your flights.)

Get support. “It really does take a village,” Bryant says. While your village might include fitness or health professionals, it also can include family members, friends, co-workers and others who might connect with you through the apps and websites linked to most trackers. You can compete for most steps or most improvement or just cheer one another on.

Know thyself. Some people love seeing their daily, weekly and monthly numbers. Others find the numbers oppressive or boring. “There are different fitness personalities,” Bryant says. “There are some individuals who are more inclined to a free-flowing fitness experience. The last thing they want is to think about numbers.”

If you find you are not a tracking fan or if you just replaced an old tracker with a new one, Gualtieri has a request: Go to her RecyleHealth website. She and her colleagues collect new and used trackers to give to low-income seniors and others who participate in their studies. A postage-paid mailing label is at the site.


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