Exclusive: Fitness trackers don’t make you fat

By  | 


It’s food and your lifestyle that does, shocker!

These are just a few of the headlines that the digital health sector is waking up to across the globe this morning thanks to a study carried out by the University of Pittsburgh. Over a two year period overweight people were given a low calorie diet along with an exercise regime. Half way through the process half the group was given a fitness tracker. According to the study, this portion of the group lost less weight than the group without the tracker.

I reckon it’s fairly safe to say that there are a few holes in the reporting of this study. The group with the trackers may have lost less weight but they didn’t put on more weight. Given the fact they were overweight in the first place, this should be seen a positive, not a negative. More importantly, in the real world, outside of university walls and controls and two year periods, anything that makes any one of us – not just those that are overweight – focus on our health, has to be a good thing surely?

According to a report published by the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) earlier this year 58% of women and 65% of men were classed as overweight or obese in 2014. Even more worrying is the fact that in 2014/15, more than one in five children in reception class at school, and one in three children in year 6 were measured as obese or overweight.

Take a walk down any UK high street and you’ll be faced with the wares in Greggs and McDonalds to name just a few of the fast food outlets we know we should eat in moderation. Last week Newcastle was named as the Greggs capital of the UK with the city offering “a whopping 29 Greggs outlets – the equivalent of 9.9 stores for every 100,000 people in the city”.

Figures from the National Child Measurement Programme 2014/15 say that 23.7% of four to five-year-olds in the North East are overweight or obese – higher than England’s average of 21.9%. If only a handful of these donned a fitness tracker and began to think about their bodies in a healthier way I reckon that would definitely be worth a headline or two.

While I’m all in favour of studies that examine the effectiveness of technology, we seem to be witnessing a mass attack on devices that are actually doing far more good than a cheese and onion pasty can ever dream of.

Monitoring the amount of activity we do on a daily basis, the quality of sleep we have and the effect of our diets on our health has got to be better than tapping the app for a takeaway. While the study found that fitness tracker wearers might have been rewarding themselves with treats more often than the group without a tracker, this is the real issue. We need to find out why this was, not slate an industry built on bettering the health of us all. Let’s face it, it’s what we put in our mouths and how little we move about that really makes us fat, not a wearable device.

With obesity now linked to 13 different types of cancer including bowel, liver and womb, along with the increased burden this epidemic is causing to the UK’s health service you have to wonder why the media wants to present fitness devices in such a bad light? The new Apple watch is a great example of how these products can make us more aware of our health – it can count laps, track average pace and efficiently measure calorie burn among other things. As the UK ups the pace for developing digital health options for the patient – see Jeremy Hunt’s latest announcement on online NHS services – the importance of wearables is only set to increase.

The UK does like a bit of a moan. And we all know the press likes to find fault. According to Diabetes UK this condition “is the fastest growing health threat of our times and an urgent public health issue”. Obesity is a key factor for anyone developing Type 2 diabetes accounting for 80-85% of the overall risk  and says Diabetes UK, underlies the current global spread of the condition. If fitness trackers help even a small proportion of patients with this condition then that has to be good.

I am aware that those of us that already eat well, don’t drink too much and take a general interest in our health are statistically more likely to get the most from a fitness tracker. However, to suggest that because one group on the study lost less weight than the fitness tracker free group (3.5kg compared with 5.9kg), this is actually making them fatter really isn’t helpful. Any weight loss should be applauded not held up as some sort of failure by them and the digital health sector.

But hold on, maybe I’m wrong… with McDonalds withdrawing the inclusion of fitness trackers with its Happy Meals this summer as they were found to be irritating the skin of users, maybe we should be think twice about the health benefits of these devices…