Wearable Fitness Devices Don’t Seem to Make You Fitter

Fitbits and Apple Watches and the like may have their uses, but they don’t appear to be effective in weight loss.

Read the full article at: www.nytimes.com


This may sound bizarre, but a very well-designed scientific study, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, found that those who used a fitness tracker lost less weight than those who did not.  The reasons for this paradoxical finding were not clear, but it ought to give us all pause.  Would you willingly spend money on a device that is likely to confound your efforts to lose weight?


I for one am not surprised.  I can think of several possible reasons why fitness trackers don’t help, and may even hinder weight loss:

  • They are based on the old “calories in minus calories out” model of weight loss
  • They encourage slow cardio which makes you eat more, and they ignore your resting metabolism
  • They give you an excuse not to exercise with intensity, which is the key to boosting metabolism

The Debunked “Calories In Minus Calories Out” Weight Loss Model

If it were nothing more than a simple elementary school math problem, then anyone would be able to lose weight and keep it off.  Of course we all know this isn’t the world we live in. Modern research has shown that the role of metabolic adaptation, the effects of macronutrient types and ratios on fat storage, and the psychology of hunger all play confounding roles in this deceptively simple equation.

If you’re still counting calories and chasing them with exercise, then you’re focusing your time and energy on the wrong things.  Shifting your focus to hunger management and metabolic modulation with macronutrient ratios will get you the results you’re after much quicker without ever having to set foot in a gym or on a scale.

Slow Cardio Makes You Hungry

Fitness trackers just accumulate and sum the total of all calories you burn, and all activity calories are not equal.  You are likely to replace all the calories you burn doing slow cardio, because it makes you hungry and provides an easy rationalization for eating more.

One study showed that people increase their food intake after exercise.  This effect may be psychological – you think you’ve burned more calories than you have – or hunger-related, or a combination of both.  A review of studies found people generally overestimated how much energy exercise burned and ate more when they worked out.  Fitness trackers only make this problem worse because they can easily convince you that your step count for the day has earned you that extra slice of pizza or mochaccino, which will be just enough to put you into positive calorie balance, and thus weight gain territory, for the day.

The real beneficial effect of exercise is that it increases your resting metabolic rate, known by the scientific acronym “NEAT” (non exercise activity thermogenesis).  The majority of the calories you burn throughout the day, up to 80%, come from NEAT.  Even a brief burst of intense exercise, as short as one minute, can have an effect on your resting metabolism, which will increase your calorie burn all day – while sitting at your desk, driving, and even sleeping!  Fitness trackers discourage the type of exercise that has the greatest effect on NEAT, while encouraging slow cardio, which results in overeating.

Fitness Trackers as An Excuse

It’s the end of the day, you’re exhausted.  Your tracker has your step count over 10,000, so you figure you’re good, and head to the bar for happy hour.  Sound familiar?  If you’re using your activity tracker as an excuse to be lazy and avoid working out then it’s no wonder the study showed that people had a harder time losing weight with a tracker than without one.  The most intense form of exercise gives your metabolism the most powerful boost.  Also, maintaining that level of intensity as you get older is the primary way to halt or even reverse the effects of aging.

According to Ned Overend, the 59-year-old National Fat Bike Champion,

“Training with an emphasis on high-intensity intervals has been my preferred method of preparing for races throughout my career. I’ve learned that by reducing volume, I’m more rested for high-intensity sessions, and by being rested I can push myself harder during the intervals.”

So if you’re using a fitness tracker as an excuse to avoid intense exercise, to eat more, or to skip workouts altogether, you’re probably  better off selling it on eBay and start losing weight the low-tech way with the rest of us.




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