Wearable fitness trackers are highly effective in weight loss efforts, study finds

Running in cold spring morning. Smart gadget and device for jogging. Training outdoors. Background with room for copy space. Active and healthy lifestyle concept. (Getty Images)

(StudyFinds.org) — Do fitness trackers really help you lose weight? With so many options from FitBit to Garmin to Apple or Amazon wearables, having a step counter and heart monitor strapped to our wrists has never been more popular. And as a recent study out of the University of Minnesota shows, these digital devices could be very well worth the cash for people trying to shed some pounds.

Around 2.5 billion adults in the world are overweight or obese – with a BMI of at least 25 or 30. This increases the risk of a range of diseases that are responsible for 70% of deaths and 85% of healthcare costs in the U.S. alone each year.

Britain has been dubbed the “Fat Man of Europe” with almost two-thirds of adults overweight or obese. More than a third fail to meet the minimum recommended amount of exercise – 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. Those overweight or obese are least likely to meet it, researchers say.

That’s why investing in a fitness tracker could be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to weight loss.

“Wearable fitness trackers represent a practical option for people who are overweight or obese and who have weight-related conditions. They allow users to set and track physical activity and provide constant reminders to get up and move – which promotes self-monitoring and self-regulation,” says corresponding author Dr. Zan Gao in a statement per South West News Service.

According to their research, fitness trackers help overweight people shed pounds and reduce the risk of deadly illnesses including cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This is the first study to show that FitBit and other over-the-counter devices motivate vulnerable individuals to meet exercise goals.

An analysis of 2,268 people reveals that a loss of just a few pounds can make a big difference. “It’s clinically meaningful in that only modest reductions in body weight of 5-10% attenuate adverse health effects associated with related illnesses,” Dr. Gao says.

The study uses data from 31 previous clinical trials. It specifically looks at the impact of fitness trackers on overweight and obese participants with related health conditions. These included various cancers, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol and sleep apnea.

Gadgets included Fitbit, SenseWear Armband, Jawbone, Polar smartwatches, Samsung Charm, FitMeter and Withings Pulse – as well as wearable motion sensors. They were worn from four weeks to a year with the volunteers having to set and meet goals. These were based on daily steps or reaching at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense physical activity – usually brisk walking.

All devices helped the users to lose weight and reduce their BMI. Interventions lasting at least 12 weeks seemed to produce the best results. 

Step counters and accelerometers resulted in the most weight loss with an average of 9 pounds 11 ounces. The commercial fitness trackers by themselves produced an average loss of 6 pounds.  Both types led to an average reduction in BMI of around 2. However, counters and accelerometers achieved the largest average BMI reduction of 3.4 when combined with components such as counseling or dietary changes.

“Research grade step counters and accelerometers aren’t available to the public,” Dr. Gao adds. He advises doctors and other health practitioners to advise overweight and obese patients to use fitness trackers as part of their treatment.

Findings are published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.