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Are Wearable Lifestyle Activity Monitors a Good Investment for Weight Loss?

Tim Boyer's picture
wearable monitor for weight loss

The first activity monitors were those old style pedometers that typically offered only at best a rough gauge on how far you traveled by foot―and then wound up in the kitchen junk drawer.

Today, the new-age version of those pedometers are essentially computers-on-the-wrist that can accurately discriminate between whether you are walking, jogging or even swimming and apply logarithms that calculate accurately how much energy you’ve expended on any one activity and throughout the day. Cool.

But that’s not all. In this age of social media, the designers of these devices also implemented phone apps for tracking your progress, goal setting and monitoring, as well as offering helpful advice and encouragement from friends who keep track of each other’s progress. In other words—tech support with social support. Even cooler.

While a lot of gadget tech trends tend to come and go quite rapidly, this one may be one of the few to last a lifetime as it offers the potential of being a lifeline for many users.

This potential is supported by the fact that health authorities recognize that the key causes of the rise in obesity are primarily a combination of high caloric intake and low physical activity. As such, even before the invention of personal wearable activity monitors, medical researchers have often advocated the need of accurate monitoring devices to test the effectiveness of clinical therapies toward treating metabolic disease.

The benefit of such a device is that it offers an efficient and affordable way for a physician and his or her patient to accurately track and monitor energy expenditure, physical activity, lifestyle and quality of life, behavior, stress level, and other related data that can be used to tailor treatment for combating metabolic disorders such as obesity.

Until now, however, there has been little research evaluating just how effective these devices are and compare with each other. In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research, scientists from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston did a comparative analysis of 13 activity monitors that include popular models such as those made by Nike, Fitbit and Jawbone. Their analysis focused on how the devices and their companion apps work to motivate the wearer.

“Despite their rising popularity, little is known about how these monitors differ from one another, what options they provide in their applications and how these options may impact their effectiveness,” said Elizabeth Lyons, senior author and assistant professor at UTMB’s Institute for Translational Sciences. “The feedback provided by these devices can be as, if not more, comprehensive than that provided by health care professionals.”

According to the UTMB news release, the researchers looked into the details of what tactics the activity monitors employ to promote healthy and fit behaviors, and determine how closely they match successful interventions and compare the functionality of several devices and their apps to the recommendations given by health care professionals.

What the researchers determined was that:

1. All monitors measured lifestyle physical activity and provided feedback via an app (computer or mobile).

2. The next most prevalent techniques (13 out of 13 monitors) were goal-setting and emphasizing discrepancy between current and goal behavior.

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3. Review of behavioral goals, social support, social comparison, prompts/cues, rewards, and a focus on past success were found in more than half of the systems.

4. The monitors included a range of 5-10 of 14 total techniques identified from the research literature as potentially effective.

5. Most of the monitors included goal-setting, self-monitoring, and feedback content that closely matched recommendations from social cognitive theory.

Final Analysis

The researchers concluded that wearable electronic activity monitors do possess a wide range of proven behavior change techniques typically used in clinical behavioral interventions. Therefore, these monitors may represent a useful technology with broad applications for use in clinical, public health, and rehabilitation settings.

In other words, if you wear it, follow through on using its apps to help you set and stick with physical activity goals that lead to burning more calories, then you could benefit with weight loss.

One shortcoming the authors noted was that the devices could implement use of energy balance information including food logs, to align with the activity monitored that would then make the devices more suitable for weight loss attempts.

So, should it be an activity monitor or a new pair of running shoes? Basically, you can do equally well with either towards weight loss. It’s just a matter if you use either on a regular basis or let them gather dust at home with all those other good intentions of your past.

If you are a little more old-school technology-wise and looking to save on the expense of a wearable activity monitor, here are some highly rated pedometers reviewed by Consumer Reports in a past article.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


University of Texas Medical Branch news release

“Behavior Change Techniques Implemented in Electronic Lifestyle Activity Monitors: A Systematic Content Analysis” Journal of Medical Internet Research, 2014; 16 (8), Elizabeth J Lyons, Zakkoyya H Lewis, Brian G Mayrsohn, and Jennifer L Rowland.