Despite reports, your Fitbit likely won't hinder your weight loss efforts

By Jonah Comstock
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Does your Fitbit actually make you less likely to lose weight? Probably not, despite what you may have read recently.

That was the question a number of major consumer-focused media outlets were asking after a new study in JAMA seemed to show just that. The study, which found that young adults who used a wearable actually lost less weight than those that didn't, checked off most of the boxes journalists look for when deciding whether to write up scientific studies: it was in a well-respected journal, had a randomized trial design, and had a reasonable sample size (471 participants).

But it may have fallen victim to a problem that's increasingly common in efforts to use established research processes to study the effects of new technologies -- namely, that the study was already outdated by the time it was published. The experiment group in the JAMA study, the one that gained more weight than a control group with the same diet and exercise regime but no wearable, wore BodyMedia SenseWear armbands between 2010 and 2012.

Today, four years later, BodyMedia is effectively out of business after being acquired by Jawbone, which gradually shuttered and then stopped supporting its product line. While the base technology may be similar, the fitness trackers of today -- including Fitbit, which was name-dropped in a number of these articles -- present a very different user experience. Part of that is tied to social features that are only possible because of the ubiquity of the devices, which could hardly have been a factor in 2010.

Aaron Coleman, the founder and CEO of Fitabase, which works with Fitbit on clinical trials, took to Twitter to make the case that BodyMedia and Fitbit was an apples-and-oranges comparison. 

"This study tested a clunky, no longer produced SenseWear arm band device. Terrible user experience model," he said in one tweet. In another, he added "and in other news, online social networks don't work according to a new study of 300 people given MySpace accounts."

The other interesting thing about the JAMA study is that it tested the effect of wearables on a group that was already getting a lot of support in losing weight. Here's a quote from the abstract:

"Participants were placed on a low-calorie diet, prescribed increases in physical activity, and had group counseling sessions. At 6 months, the interventions added telephone counseling sessions, text message prompts, and access to study materials on a website. At 6 months, participants randomized to the standard intervention group initiated self-monitoring of diet and physical activity using a website, and those randomized to the enhanced intervention group were provided with a wearable device and accompanying web interface to monitor diet and physical activity."

In other words, the study evaluated whether a clunky, early fitness tracker was a useful add-on to an already robust weight loss regimen, and found that it wasn't. But it's hard to say that has anything to do with whether a 2016 fitness tracker and companion app will help an average person with no additional support lose weight.

In the study itself, the authors don't speculate on the reasons for the rather counterintuitive findings. But in speaking with the press, lead author John Jakicic has suggested that perhaps viewing data was actually an demotivator, or that perhaps people whose wearables were congratulating them for getting a lot of exercise felt justified in eating more in a way that those without wearables did not.

That's a legitimately interesting hypothesis, and it would be interesting see a study on whether that effect exists in modern fitness trackers. Hopefully we won't have to wait six years to see that study.