Activity trackers: are they for you?

Posted on 18 May 2017

Fitness or activity trackers are all the rage, but can they really help you reach your weight loss and health goals?

Lili Tsemba* bought an entry-level fitness or activity tracker (known by the brand name FitBit) in December last year as part of the healthy changes she pledged to make to her lifestyle. These included joining a weight-loss programme offering structured meal plans with regular weigh-ins, and making more time for gym. Since December, she has shed 6kg and continues to work towards her weight-loss goals.

‘After a wellness assessment at work, I realised I needed to make some changes to my lifestyle. I have a sedentary job as a designer, and with two children and a husband who works long hours, I seldom have time to gym. Basically, I realised my activity levels had slumped to an all-time low, and having a stressful job I often used to resort to comfort foods. So I decided to get an activity tracker because my medical aid’s wellness scheme offers cash-back incentives if you reach 10 000 steps a day.’

Overall, Lili speaks positively about her activity tracker. ‘It warns me when I’ve been sitting for longer than an hour at work, so I get up and fill up my water glass – and yes, I take the stairs. Sometimes it will remind me to walk the long way to work, or even stop for a walk along the beach if there’s time. I often clock my 10 000 steps before breakfast and that’s a great feeling.’

Part of a broader weight loss programme

However, Lili cautions that her weight loss is not down to the activity tracker alone. ‘I recently joined a structured weight-loss programme, and that has made a huge difference to how I see food. I think carefully about every meal I prepare and what I put into my body. Having regular weigh-ins helps me to stay focused on my weight-loss goals.’ She adds that being surrounded by health-conscious colleagues and a work culture that promotes flexible working hours has further aided her lifestyle changes, allowing her to make time for gym and shopping for healthy groceries.

What studies say

Global research on activity trackers largely mirrors Lili’s experience: they have been noted to help people improve their activity levels under the right conditions, but are in no way a panacea for the global obesity epidemic.

A 2016 study published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal found that activity trackers were effective as long as they were paired with wellness coaching. However, another study published the same year in UK medical journal The Lancet found that activity trackers didn’t help people move more unless there were incentives involved. Once cash incentives were removed from the study, 90% of the people in the study abandoned their efforts to exercise more.

Fortunately, with a range of wellness programmes available through medical aids and insurance companies in South Africa, people are incentivised to use their activity trackers correctly – in other words, to increase their daily activity levels and stay the course. Activity trackers may be a useful addition to a person’s diet and fitness programme if the essential ingredient is present: a strong motivation to become fitter, leaner and ultimately reap the numerous health benefits.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Published in Exercise

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