I have noted an increase over the last few years in wearable electronic fitness-tracking devices on my patients. These gadgets measure data such as the number of steps walked per day, heart rate, quality of sleep, and number of steps climbed. From a technology standpoint, they are fascinating — and I can see that they’re fun to use. However, they may not offer any increased benefits for patients trying to lose weight.

At every physical examination, I always ask my patients about their current exercise regimen. Often, their response will be to proudly display a Fitbit or other wearable tracking device and tell me that they reach 10,000 steps almost every day. 

While I applaud efforts to monitor fitness, I am not sure an electronic tracking device is the best way to do it. In fact, some studies find that keeping track of exercise manually is more likely to lead to weight-loss success.

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I am also pretty certain that, at least for some of my patients, electronic tracking devices impart a false sense of achievement. It is not necessarily the number of steps per se taken each day, but rather the number of steps taken consecutively at a pace brisk enough to increase your heart rate that counts toward aerobic exercise. I have also noticed that while most patients will tell me how many steps they’ve walked or how well they’re sleeping, they are less forthcoming about whether they’ve lost any weight or improved their BMI.

Unfortunately, about two-thirds of my adult patients remain overweight or obese. And from what I observe, most of the people wearing fitness-tracking devices tend to be heavier. A study from the University of Pittsburgh published this year in JAMA revealed that the addition of a wearable technology device to standard behavioral intervention for weight loss actually resulted in less weight lost over a 24-month period.

Another point is that the data measured by wearable fitness-trackers has actually been shown to be less accurate than data measured by smartphone fitness applications. Of course, smart phones are bulkier than fitness trackers and more awkward to use for exercise.

On the other hand, there are electronic applications that really do help with weight loss — calorie trackers. While counting up calories for every meal, every day is time consuming and can get old pretty quickly, monitoring your caloric intake is a better use of your time than monitoring how many steps you do or don’t take in a day. Calorie tracking not only lets you know precisely how much total energy you’re really consuming, it also teaches you how many calories are in particular foods so you can better adjust and control your diet.

So if you really want to give your fitness and weight loss efforts a boost, track calories — and get enough exercise. But skip the wrist gadget.

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