Do activity trackers help or hinder your weight loss efforts?

Did you know..

A new study says activity trackers may undermine your weight loss results.

You can view the NY Times article HERE

500 overweight participants were involved in a 2 year weight loss study. One group wore an activity tracker, the other group reported activity with pen and paper.
The ones who wore the activity trackers lost less weight and moved less than the group who reported their activity old school style.

Wait what?

No one saw that result coming.  It was predicted that the group using the trackers would lose more weight and move more.

First the good news..

Before I get to my theories of what went wrong, I would like to share some of the reasons I like activity trackers (for some people).

  1. I have been urging my fat loss clients to look at their 168 hour week as a whole for years. Not to micro-focus on one workout or one meal. I think activity trackers have finally gotten this message out to the masses.
  2. They encourage people to get up off their butts and move more, which of course is a good thing.


My theories on what might have gone wrong?

1) Forgetting that activity trackers are a measurement tool, not a magic bullet.

Just like a vacuum cleaner is a tool that can help you clean your house. However nothing gets clean unless you actually put effort in and use it regularly.

2) The health halo effect.

Wearing an activity tracker can give some people the feeling that they are making great progress towards their goal. This feeling can cause them to make less actual progress.

3) Reward mentality

Seeing 1000’s of steps taken gives some people the mindset that they should reward themselves with more food, drinks or rest than they normally would. This can cancel out any calories burnt off and in some cases these food rewards contain 2 – 5 times more calories than what was burnt off.

See also – Surprising facts about calories that you need to know

4) ALL or NOTHING effect

Some people who were given a target of 10,000 steps per day didn’t try at all if they knew they were not going to reach it.
When will we learn that our body is more like a bank account where everything IN and OUT counts.  Its not a test that we either pass or fail.

5) Primary focus on QUANTITY, with little regard to QUALITY

You could burn 500 calories by going for a long easy walk for 90 minutes,  or burn the same amount by doing a hard 50 minute circuit session that gets you huffing and puffing out of your comfort zone at times AND uses and overloads all of your muscle groups.

Same QUANTITY of calories burnt, very different QUALITY.

Side note – The same thing applies for calories IN too.  As discussed in THIS ARTICLE, 500 calories of (half packet) potato chips will affect us differently compared to 500 calories of chicken, rice and veg.

6) Too much thinking about it in general

Try this little thought experiment…  DON’T think about a YELLOW CAR.

How’d you go?

Pretty impossible right?

When we put LOT’s of focus on food, fitness and calories, we can often end up eating MORE. Simply because its on our mind ALL OF THE TIME.

I discuss in full here  21 ways to lose weight that have (almost) nothing to do with diet or exercise 

7) Treating the number of calories burnt amount as gospel

Sorry to break it to you, but the number of calories burnt reported on trackers or calorie calculators is an estimate only. The number of calories you consume (reading food labels or entering details into a tracker) is an estimate too. I have found that trackers often over exaggerate the amount of calories burnt

Don’t get me wrong, it can be a useful guide, but don’t get too obsessive about it all.

Also see – how to lose weight and gain health without strictly counting calories or going on a diet

My conclusion??

If you know the basics of weight loss and you are ready to make permanent changes and effort,

then any tool can work.

If you don’t know the basics and / or you are still trying to “game the system”,

then any tool can suck.

I would love to hear your thoughts over on Facebook..