Fitness trackers have taken over.
The innocuous bracelets and watches that track everything from steps taken to calories burned were all but invisible a decade ago. Now, analysts predict the industry will be worth a whopping $5.4 billion by 2019.
On its face, this seems like a good thing. Fitness trackers can motivate people to be active and get invested in their own well-being. However, their actual usefulness might be overestimated. For a variety of reasons, your fitness tracker might not be all that useful in the long run. Here’s why.
Putting it To The Test
A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh sought to determine how effective fitness trackers are for weight loss. “Numerous wearable technologies specific to physical activity and diet are available, but it is unclear if these are effective at improving weight loss,” the study’s authors write in the abstract.
A group of 471 overweight or obese young adults were put on a low-calorie diet and asked to exercise more. They also had group counseling sessions. Over a six-month period under these conditions, all participants experienced weight loss. Next, the participants were split into two groups. One group began self-reporting their personal diet and exercise using an online website. The other group were given fitness trackers.
When the study ended 18 months later, researchers found that the group with fitness trackers lost 7.7 pounds. The group without fitness trackers, however, lost 13 pounds. That’s a pretty substantial difference. The latter group lost almost twice as much weight.
“Among young adults with a BMI between 25 and 40, the addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioral intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months. Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches,” the study’s authors wrote in their conclusion.
Why would a fitness tracker seem to hinder weight loss or make it more difficult to sustain? The answer might have something to do with what fitness trackers actually track as well as human psychology.
Not All Activity Is Equal
Fitness trackers are designed to get people moving. They’re great for folks who are sedentary or looking to lose weight. If you work in an office or sit in class all day, you’ll be surprised at how little you move. So wearing something that counts your steps or monitors your heart rate is a great way to remind yourself to stand up and get moving.
For weight loss, this might work for some people. If you move more, you’ll burn more calories and you may shed some pounds. However, this is exercise at its most basic level. Fitness trackers don’t necessarily incentivize you to hit the weight room or get in an intense yoga session.
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“These technologies are focused on physical activity, like taking steps and getting your heart rate up,” John Jakici, the lead author of the study, told NPR.
Having access to activity tracking could also cause someone to take a different approach to fitness. Let’s say an overweight person did a lot of walking during a given work day. They walked to work, walked to lunch, walked to grab a coffee in the afternoon, etc. By the end of the work day, their fitness tracker would tell them that they’d taken a lot of steps and gotten in a lot of activity. That might make them feel like they’d already accomplished a lot, and that they’re entitled to skip out on the gym.
Those without fitness trackers don’t have access to such data. While they might walk just as much in a day, they’re likely not paying nearly as much attention to their steps or activity level as those with fitness trackers. Thus, they might not feel as accomplished by the end of the work day, making them feel more obligated to exercise.
License to Eat
Another potential drawback with fitness trackers is that they could encourage uses to eat more than they would without one.
Why? Because their calorie-tracking capabilities could lead them to overeat. By providing exact numbers on things like calories burned, fitness trackers could give people a “license to eat” more than they would without the data. “[People might say], ‘Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.’ And they might eat more than they otherwise would have,” says Jakicic.
This is the exact opposite of “intuitive eating,” which refers to the strategy of relying on internal cues to tell you when and what to eat, as opposed to external cues. When you eat intuitively, you let your hunger dictate meal times and make choices based on both your health and your enjoyment.
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A 2014 study published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that “interventions that encourage intuitive eating decrease unhealthy eating behaviors such as dietary restraint and binge eating, signifying a healthier relationship with food.”
Fitness Trackers Aren’t The Be-All, End-All
Are fitness trackers bad? No. On the contrary, they can be a great way to get sedentary people up and moving. But in the long term, those abilities often diminish.
“We found that just giving people a device doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to result in something you think it’s going to result in,” Jakicic told TIME. “These activity trackers really don’t engage people in strategies that really make a difference in terms of long-term lifestyle change.”
If you’re already an active person, a fitness tracker can be a fun way to track your activity. But if you’re someone who’s looking to make serious changes to your body composition, a fitness tracker shouldn’t be the only tool you rely on over the long term.
“The findings of our study are important because effective long-term treatments are needed to address America’s obesity epidemic,” said Jakicic. “We’ve found that questions remain regarding the effectiveness of wearable devices and how to best use them to modify physical activity and diet behaviors in adults seeking weight loss.”
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