Do fitness trackers work? Anecdotal evidence says yes, but the science says no: a study in September last year found that when people were put on a fat-loss regime and instructed to either wear one or not, the people wearing trackers lost less weight than their tracker-free brethren.
Another study, published in October, gave 600 volunteers cold, hard cash to exercise and monitor their movement: but 40% dropped out of the experiment while they were still getting paid, and when the financial incentive was taken away only 10% of them stuck at it. That group, incidentally, still only got an average of 16 extra minutes of physical activity a week, making no difference to their health over the study period.
When people were put on a fat-loss regime and instructed to either wear one or not, the people wearing trackers lost less weight than their tracker-free brethren
Of course, it’s as tricky to study fitness trackers as any almost other form of health intervention: because, if you don’t really want to get in better shape, not much is going to convince you. That might be why they tend to work for people who buy them: they’ve already made the decision to get in shape, with a FitBit acting as a form of what psychologists call pre-commitment to keep things on, uh, track.
But buying a tracker and then expecting your lifestyle to magically change is probably doomed to failure: the best results come from buying a tracker and also having a plan. Are you actively going to do more steps every day, by going for a lunchtime walk or changing your route home? Are you going to exercise in the correct heart-rate zone, by doing a bit of maths and working out what’s best for fat loss? Are you going to shift your sleeping habits, if the tracker tells you you’re barely getting 20 minutes of REM-shuteye a night? If so: great. It’ll probably work. Otherwise, just get a watch instead.