If you have a fitness tracker, it’s easy to see the little gadget as a way to kick your health up a notch. But if you’ve looped in a fitness tracker for the specific purpose of losing weight, it’s worth noting that new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that the devices may not help people drop pounds as much as it seems like they would. This is just the latest piece of evidence to suggest that, nifty as they are, these trackers aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to health and fitness.
The study followed 471 adults, all overweight or obese, and had them adopt a low-calorie diet for six months. The participants were also encouraged to be more active and try to get at least 100 minutes of moderate activity a week, in addition to keeping food and exercise diaries and attending counseling sessions. After six months, everyone had lost weight.
Then, the group was divided in two: Some wore fitness trackers; others did not. The experiment continued for another 18 months, after which researchers discovered that people who didn’t wear fitness trackers had lost about 13 pounds on average from their starting weight. People who wore the trackers, on the other hand, lost eight pounds on average. “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight-loss approaches,” researchers concluded in the study.
Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., of SoHo Strength Lab and Promix Nutrition, isn’t shocked by the findings. “[A fitness tracker] can be a good learning tool to give you initial general feedback on [things like] how many miles you are walking, but people need to have an understanding and a feel for their own bodies,” he tells SELF.
Jim Pivarnik, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, tells SELF that experts aren’t even sure trackers always estimate figures correctly. If you’re basing how much you eat, exercise, or sleep mainly on your tracker’s metrics, you may have a skewed understanding of your health. The simple, admittedly virtuous-feeling act of wearing a tracker can also make it seem like you’re being healthier than you actually are, Pivarnik says.
Doug Sklar, a certified personal trainer and founder of New York City-based fitness training studio PhilanthroFIT agrees, telling SELF that trackers only provide numbers. “They do not do the actual work that is required to maintain or improve fitness,” he says. “It is still up to the individual wearing the tracker to educate his or herself on how to best benefit from the information provided.”
Kelsey Patel, yoga and barre instructor, and owner of Pure Barre Beverly Hills, also points out that if someone is trying to lose weight, fitness trackers don’t get to the root of why they weigh more than they’d like to. “The reality is we are complex human beings,” she tells SELF. “You may set all the right goals and do all of the right programs on your fitness tracker, however, if you’ve never dealt with your emotional or mental fitness, then the weight may never budge.” The novelty of wearing a fitness tracker can also get old, and people may forget that they’re wearing it as a reminder to be active, Pivarnik says.
But don’t worry—there are some benefits to wearing the devices. Matheny says even having ballpark information about how active you’re being or how many calories you’re burning can be helpful. “It helps people begin to put their choices about what they eat and drink in perspective,” he says. Trackers can also provide motivation for people to meet certain goals they set for themselves, Sklar says, and to top it off, some people do see them as great reminders to be active. All good things.
If you feel like your tracker is helping you get closer to your health and fitness goals, keep wearing it. Although experts stress that, while trackers are cool, losing weight—and being healthy in general—ultimately comes down to your own efforts, that doesn’t mean activity trackers have zero value. “If you personally find it helpful to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and you are seeing the results you were hoping to attain, then you should absolutely go for it,” Sklar says.
SELF – Culture