Sunday 19 May 2019

How effective is your Fitbit?

We've fallen in love with activity trackers which monitor our every move in our battle to get fitter and leaner. But research proves we might need to rethink our relationship with wearable tech if we really want to see the benefits

Fitness trackers
Fitness trackers
Thea Ni Lionnain: 'It's about realistic goals'
Linda Byrne

Joe O'Shea

Activity trackers are now the must-have accessory for those aiming to shape-up and lose weight, the "wearable tech" that shows the world you are serious about getting fit.

But while many of us now regard them as almost "magic bracelets" - able to track and report every step and stat on our journey to physical wellbeing - it's worth asking; is your Fitbit really fit for purpose?

Research into the effectiveness of activity trackers such as Fitbit, Moov and Garmin has found that while these hi-tech monitors can have very positive effects for people who are committed to a healthy diet and exercise regime, they may be failing some wearers thanks to old-fashioned human flaws.

The technology has never been smarter. But it seems that just splashing out on an expensive activity tracker and wearing it through your day may not be enough to achieve peak fitness. In basic terms, your Fitbit won't do that 10k run for you - or sound an alarm if you order a pizza.

Thea Ni Lionnain: 'It's about realistic goals'
Thea Ni Lionnain: 'It's about realistic goals'

The demand for activity trackers is huge and growing - the global market for sports "wearables" is forecast to hit €2.25bn by 2019.

But two recent academic studies (published in The Lancet and the Journal Of The American Medical Association) have collected extensive real-world data on the use of activity trackers which questions about just how effective they are.

The studies looked at the effectiveness of activity trackers on weight loss, whether they motivate people to work out more and how they affect our approach to physical activity and losing weight.

And just like the wearables themselves, the studies threw up a lot of data. One of the stand-out findings was just how many people simply don't stick with wearing their trackers.

In one study, involving 800 volunteers in Singapore, of the group who were given activity trackers and asked to wear them for a year, some 40pc had stopped wearing them after six months.

In another study (by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh) by the end of the first year, just 10pc of the people who had started out wearing activity trackers still used them on a daily basis by month 12.

Linda Byrne
Linda Byrne

The Pittsburgh study put 470 people on a low-calorie diet and asked them to exercise more. They all began to lose weight. After six months, half of those in the study started self-monitoring their diet and exercise. The other half were given fitness trackers to monitor their activity.

After two years - both groups were reporting equal amounts of activity. But those using activity trackers had lost significantly less weight.

Overall, those in the study without fitness trackers lost 13 pounds, while the tech-enabled group lost 7.7 pounds.

The lead author on the study, Professor John Jakicic, believes the unexpected results may have been partly down to the activity trackers giving their users a false sense of the work they had done.

"These technologies are focused on physical activity, like taking steps and getting your heart rate up," says Jakicic.

"People would say, 'Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.' And they might eat more than they otherwise would have."

Professor Jakicic says activity trackers - while able to produce highly detailed stats and feedback - cannot compel wearers to change their lifestyles.

"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," he says. "These activity trackers really don't engage people in strategies that really make a difference in terms of long-term lifestyle change."

In response to the study, a spokesperson for Fitbit said: "We are confident in the positive results users have seen from the Fitbit platform, including our wearable devices."

The second study in Singapore study focused on motivation.

The human guinea-pigs were split into groups and one cohort were given Fitbit Zips and told they would be rewarded with a small cash payment for increased movement (they were told they could keep the money or donate it to charity).

Another group were not given Fitbits, but were willing to exercise more and follow a healthier lifestyle.

The researchers carefully measured all physical activity, weight, blood pressure and the body's ability to use oxygen (cardio fitness) and asked the volunteers to keep a diary recording their quality of life.

In the second six months of the study all incentives were dropped and test subjects could decide to stop wearing their trackers.

The researchers were surprised to find that by the halfway point 40pc of those given trackers had already stopped wearing them every day anyway.

They found the cash incentives to be more active seemed to work in the first few months of the study, with those given a reward doing an average of 13 minutes more moderate-to-physical activity every week and adding 570 steps to their daily counts.

But even these modest gains were reversed once the cash rewards stopped.

People tended to fall back into their old, unhealthy lifestyles.

While those who used the tracker bracelets did show moderate health gains (those who did not wear them showed no improvement) these small improvements had no significant impact on overall health outcomes.

The message from both studies would seem to be clear, if people are not prepared to make real and significant lifestyle changes, a hi-tech bracelet is not going to do it for them.

Thea Ni Lionnain is a qualified sports physiologist who has been using activity trackers since they first hit the market - she got her first one when she was taking on the Dublin Marathon. And while she is a Fitbit fan, she believes some people might have unrealistic expectations as to what they can do.

"What activity trackers will do, at the start at least, is encourage you to take more steps. And that's great if you have a very sedentary lifestyle and you want to get moving," says Thea.

"But the thing is, they'll count the same number of steps whether you are walking to the pizza parlour or the pub or talking a five-mile walk in the countryside.

"Just taking more steps is not, by itself, going to help you lose weight or get fitter. You really have to look at lifestyle changes, diet, the type of exercise you are doing.

"There is a real shift now towards high-intensity training. People are realising that it's not the number of steps you take in a day, it's the level of intensity and finding a workout or exercise regime that really works for you".

Thea says the latest generation of activity trackers - which can now use GPS tech to track every move you make through the day - can be a great resource for those serious about getting fit.

"I think they can definitely give you lots of really valuable information and help you to make the most of the work you are putting in. I'd say it's just about having realistic goals, being motivated yourself and being willing to make the lifestyle changes that make a difference."

Fans of Fitbits and similar "wearables" will also point to the positive social aspect of the technology, which allows you to connect to friends with similar devices, set common group goals and motivate each other when times get tough and a night on the couch with a box of chocs is more appealing than a session in the gym.

Linda Byrne is a 32-year-old freelance fashion illustrator from Kildare who spends most of her working day at a drawing desk working for some high-profile clients.

For Linda, her recently acquired Fitbit (a Christmas present) has allowed her to track just how much (or little) exercise she is getting and connect with a group of five friends who are on a similar journey.

"It's great for that, for connecting people and allowing you to encourage each other, in the group you can see how you are all doing and set challenges for yourselves," says Linda.

"But I'm not convinced about how good it's been for me myself and my own fitness.

"I do sit at a desk for most of the day, I try to keep as fit as possible and I thought a Fitbit would help with that," says Linda.

"You do get a lot of info from them and one thing that's great for me is that it monitors your heart rate, I suffer from low blood pressure so that's important for me. But when you look back on your data at the end of the week, it's very general, it does tell you how many steps you have taken, distance covered, heart rate and other info like that, but it's hard to tell what's been the most effective exercise you have done."

Linda's experience with her recently acquired activity tracker echoes what the most recent studies into the use of Fitbits and similar devices has found.

The current generation of "wearables" can record reams of very detailed information about your physical efforts throughout the day or week. They are especially valuable for professional athletes or committed amateurs following peak performance programmes.

However, as the studies in the US and Singapore have confirmed - you can have all the technology in the world, but your activity tracker will just be a very hi-tech watch unless you are prepared to make the kind of lifestyle changes that will really make a difference.

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