While the Apple Watch is one of the most popular fitness trackers on the market, Apple has always been on tiptoe about the device’s usefulness as a weight loss tool. A new Washington Post report looks at recent research that says wearing a fitness tracker like the Apple Watch “does not necessarily give people the motivation to change their behaviour.”
Can Apple Watch Help You Lose Weight? Experts are weighing
The report presents several different studies on how fitness trackers affect motivation, physical activity, and changes in indicators such as weight and blood pressure. This points to one study published in 2016 on Fitbit. This study found that Fitbit users “maintained their physical activity slightly better than the control group without them” but that after a year “this was not enough to cause changes in weight or blood pressure.”
John Jakichich, who studies obesity and weight management at the University of Kansas, told the Washington Post that products like the Apple Watch are based on the assumption that “if you give people information, they will do something to change their behavior.” In fact, this is not the case for longer periods of time.
“When we give devices to people, it usually doesn’t change their behavior,” he says. “And if it changes, then for a very short period of time – maybe 2-3 months, maybe a little longer – before the thing on your wrist ends up in a drawer or you just stop paying attention to it. ”
Jakičić helped lead one of the largest controlled studies on tracking technology, published in 2016 by the University of Pittsburgh. It found that dieting adults who wore a regular activity monitor for 18 months lost less—yes, less—weight than those who didn’t. People who wore the devices also generally moved less.
Another theory in the report is that “by itself, measuring one’s body can change the psychological experience of being active.”
A 2016 study by Jordan Atkin of Duke University found that measurement can undermine the “intrinsic motivation” of activities such as taking a walk, making it more work-like and reducing ongoing involvement in an activity. “They can’t give you motivation,” says Atkin.
We still don’t understand how they affect people differently. Some people with trackers energize themselves by competing with friends and family to move more. But for others, watching their watch report that they had a lazy day can encourage self-sabotage. A 2017 study of teenagers found trackers negatively increased peer pressure and demoralization.
The report also cited Matt Bouman of Arizona State University:
On their own, gadgets “do not provide the extra support needed for long-term sustainable behavior change—things like social support or goal setting, demonstrating the behavior of others like you, and planning actions.”
Gary Foster, chief scientist at WeightWatchers, said about 40% of its members use fitness trackers to collect workout data. The company, however, did not see a link between this use and weight loss outcome.
What that might say, Foster told me, is that wearing a tracker makes it easier to exercise.
But the fitness gadget still can’t automate what Foster considers the most important weight loss data: what you eat.
As a result, Foster says, “Tracking your activity will have little or no effect without this surround sound support, what to do with this information.”
In response to the story, Apple told the Washington Post that it “doesn’t track weight loss research because that’s not the primary focus of the Apple Watch.” However, he cited a 2018 study that found that people who were rewarded for reaching specific goals with their Apple Watch “had an average of 34 percent increase in tracked days of activity per month, and this persisted beyond programs”.
This article from the Washington Post nicely summarizes several different perspectives and research in this area, but it’s clear that we need more research on these topics. The Apple Watch has been on the market since 2015, but by the standards of academic and medical research, that’s not much.
Fitness is also only one factor in a person’s overall health. The Apple Watch is primarily focused on tracking physical activity, which means it’s not the only reason a person’s health can improve or deteriorate over time. The Apple Health app is designed to capture the bigger picture of your health by providing data on numerous other factors that affect your health beyond fitness.
With that said, I have a few issues with how the Apple Watch handles fitness tracking. I think the focus on calories in particular needs to change. Research has already proven that these types of calorie estimates are largely inaccurate and misleading.
The Apple Watch also lacks any built-in “holiday” or “ready” features. In my personal experience, this oversight is one of the biggest factors in eventually giving up on fitness goals. If you closed your rings for 7 days in a row, the Apple Watch should be smart enough to suggest you take a recovery day. Instead, it forces you to continue without any context.
Most important, however, is the fact that Apple hasn’t made any changes to the ring-based system since 2015. The system does not need to be completely scrapped, but there are ways to rethink some aspects of the system. After all, it’s been almost a decade since the Apple Watch was first introduced.