A recent New York Times article titled "Wearable Fitness Devices Don’t Seem to Make You Fitter" references a study called the IDEA trial as evidence that shows that using an activity tracker can actually harm your efforts to lose weight. The study was conducted between 2010 and 2012 at the University of Pittsburgh. 470 adults we put on a low-calorie diet and given regular telephone counseling sessions. This is where wearable fitness trackers came into play. Half of the 470 participants were given "wearable tech devices that monitored their activity and connected to a website to help provide feedback." At the end of the 18-month study the average weight loss of the group without the "fitness wearable" were compared to those who had the devices. The group without the wearable fitness tracker lost an average of 13 pounds while those with the fitness wearables only lost 7.7 pounds. So clearly this points to activity trackers being not only ineffective but possibly detrimental. How could this be? Something didn't sound right, so I did a little digging (you know, like how professional journalists at publications like the New York Times are supposed to do).
The key piece of information missing from this New York Times piece is the exact details of the "fitness tracker" employed for the study. Remember, this study started in 2010 so we were still 5-years away from the Apple Watch. While there were some fitness wearables on the market, they were still not anywhere what I would call "mainstream." So what exactly was used? I found a news relase from The University of Pittsburgh that describes the device as a:
"multisensor device used within the study was to be worn on the upper arm and provided feedback on energy expenditure and physical activity."
An "upper arm cuff" is not exactly an ideal fitness tracking device. This is not something that you can quickly glance down at, nor is it comfortable and natural to wear on an everyday basis. Even if this device had some sort of real time display, I seriously doubt it was user friendly much less an "enjoyable" experience. And how about social interaction? Did this device ping your friends each time you compelted a workout to encourage them to do the same (like many of today's fitness trackers do)? The only thing you can reasonably conclude from the results of this study is that feedback in the form of data alone is not enough to encourage or stimulate weight loss. Yet the results from this study are being used to say that fitness trackers don't work as a way to promote weight loss. You simply can't make that leap from this study and it is deceptive to use the results of this study to do so. Users of this so called "fitness tracker" were probably irritated with the experience of wearing this upper arm cuff and as a result were turned off to the whole idea of exercise because of this negative experience. It doesn't take much to deter someone from excercising, so even the slightest excuse is more than enough to make a significant negative impact.
I guess I am surpised to see a medical study like this make such a bold claim when only a single device was used as the variable in the study. How many people today in the year 2017 use an upper arm cuff as thier fitness tracker? The answer to that is ZERO. As a standalone device to measure heartrate during clinical studies? Maybe. But certainly not as an everyday wearable device to track fitness. The more likely reason that the group in this study didn't lose as much weight as the control group is that the were simply irritated with either the form factor or the user interface associated with the fitness tracker used in the study. Repeat the study using a variety of fitness wearables today and I bet you get some interesting results. You might even get some results that could tell you something about the effectiveness of fitness trackers...