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Fitness trackers didn't lead to major weight loss, lower blood pressure: Study

The devices, when used on their own, aren't enough to significantly change someone’s health, researchers say.
Health effects of using a fitness tracker
About a quarter of U.S. adults use a wearable device.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Activity trackers measuring people's every move may not be doing that much for their health bottom lines.

The wearable devices appear to have “little benefit” when it comes to reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, or even helping people to lose significant weight, a new analysis published in the American Journal of Medicine has found.

About a quarter of U.S. adults, more than 56 million, are using a wearable device at least once a month, according to the research firm eMarketer.

Many companies are also encouraging the use of wearable fitness trackers as part of their workplace wellness programs.

The trackers are easy to use and do motivate people to move more, which can help with overall long-term health. But the studies showed the increased movement rarely lead to major changes in health outcomes, said lead author Ara Jo, a clinical assistant professor in the department of health services research, management and policy at the University of Florida — at least when people use them on their own, without feedback from a doctor, nutritionist or trainer.

“The weight loss findings are pretty surprising," Jo told TODAY. "I thought that wearable devices would definitely help to lose weight, at some point, because they make people move, but apparently not."

“They can motivate people to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, but that does not change people’s lifestyle to be [adequately] active,” she added.

Jo and her colleagues found 550 published studies about fitness trackers and of those, they focused on six randomized clinical trials, a total of 1,615 people, that also collected specific data on health. Four of the studies used a Fitbit, while the other two involved the activity app integrated into people’s phones.

Only one study found significant weight loss among participants who used wearable devices. None showed a significant reduction in cholesterol or blood pressure. The only study that looked at blood glucose levels, which are important in managing diabetes, showed some decrease for people using the fitness trackers.

The bottom line is: Wearable devices can help to remind people to stand up and move during long bouts of inactivity, but that's not enough to significantly change someone’s health, Jo said.

What does seem to matter is support and feedback from a doctor, trainer or nutritionist who can look at the data from an activity tracker and help a person come up with a personalized plan to improve their workout and diet routine, she added.

Using the gadget just on its own — without a health professional’s feedback — can still be helpful for someone who needs to get regular prompts to get moving.

“But someone who expects to see significant effects like weight loss or clinical outcome improvements, it won’t be as useful,” Jo said.

Still, previous research has found every bit of exercise adds up to a longer, healthier life.

It's not necessary to reach 10,000 steps a day — a number that seems to have little meaning — but people who just move around a bit more have a lower risk of dying than those who are the most sedentary, a recent study found.