Ever since they came onto the market, fitness trackers have prompted varying opinions about their efficacy. Some studies suggest these wearables can have a negative psychological impact or that they have limited utility, because many people end up abandoning them within a few months. On the other hand, studies suggest checking your watch stats during a run can keep your performance on par, particularly if you’re feeling mentally taxed.
Now, a new and comprehensive research review published in The Lancet Digital Health suggests there are far more benefits than downsides to wearing a fitness tracker.
Researchers looked at 39 studies analyzing activity trackers, with results from nearly 164,000 participants, spanning all age groups and including both healthy individuals and those with chronic conditions. They found that, overall, tracker usage led to higher levels of physical activity. On average, people got an extra 1,800 steps and walked for 40 minutes more daily compared to non-tracker groups. Trackers also contributed to improved body composition. Researchers typically measured these changes over about three to six months, sometimes longer.
These results run counter to the widespread skepticism about the effectiveness of wearable activity trackers within the scientific, medical, and general community, according to the study’s lead author, Carol Maher, Ph.D., research professor at the Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition, and Activity at the University of South Australia.
She told Runner’s World there’s a perception of wearables as expensive toys that make no difference after an initial flurry of enthusiasm. Worse, several news stories have highlighted how some people feel guilty about not hitting their goals—meaning the trackers actually prompt emotional health problems.
“These news stories tend to be based on testimonials from individuals, rather than strong science,” said Maher. “I hope our study can help dispel some of the myths around wearable activity trackers, because there is a huge volume of evidence now supporting their significant benefits.”
The take-home message from the research review, she added, is that wearables are a relatively low-cost, convenient tool for boosting your daily activity, and may also lead to a small amount of weight loss. The average amount lost for each participant was about 2 pounds, which may not seem like much, but it’s an indicator that activity can help prevent the type of “weight creep” that’s become more common as people age, Maher said. Also, the finding that higher activity levels are maintained over time is important, but still needs more research.
“There have been hundreds of studies looking at the effects of wearables, but most of them have been reasonably short-term in nature,” said Maher. “We know that many people have made a long-term shift to using a wearable activity tracker, so the next step for research is to look at the effects of wearables over three to five years, which hasn’t been done yet.”
When those results come in, Maher believes they’ll be similar to what this research found: Trackers might not be for everyone, but for the majority of users, they could represent an easy and meaningful way to get moving more every day. That’s important for everyone, including runners who might think clocking miles negates the effects of staying sedentary for the rest of the day. But making sure you move more, more consistently is always key for staying healthy.
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