Wearable Tech May Not Lead to Weight Loss

Peter M. Yellowlees, MBBS, MD


January 30, 2017

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This is the Medscape Psychiatry Minute. I'm Dr Peter Yellowlees.

Effective long-term treatments are needed to address the obesity epidemic. Numerous wearable technologies specific to physical activity and diet are available, but it is unclear if these are effective at improving weight loss. Now a team of investigators from the University of Pittsburgh have undertaken a 2-year-long randomized controlled trial[1] with 471 participants to test the hypothesis that, compared with a standard behavioral weight loss intervention, a technology-enhanced intervention would result in greater weight loss. All participants were placed on a low-calorie diet, prescribed increases in physical activity, and had group counseling sessions. At 6 months, telephone counseling sessions, text message prompts, and access to study materials on a website were added for all. Additionally, control participants initiated self-monitoring of diet and physical activity using a website, while the enhanced-intervention group was provided with a wearable device and accompanying Web interface to monitor diet and physical activity. The primary outcome of weight was measured over 24 months at 6-month intervals.

The researchers found that weight change at 24 months differed significantly, with less mean weight loss in the technology-enhanced group than in the standard-intervention group (3.5 kg vs 5.9 kg, respectively). However, both groups showed significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity, and diet. The authors concluded that among young adults with a body mass index between 25 and 40, devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches.

Does this mean that we should throw away our fitness monitoring devices and advise our patients to do the same? Not yet, is the fair answer, as much more research is needed. But this study does remind us to critically evaluate the sometimes exaggerated claims or suggestions seen in device marketing programs, and not to expect dramatic outcomes just because an innovation sounds exciting. We have long known that increased exercise by itself does not necessarily lead to long-term weight loss but may well lead to enhanced physical fitness, which may be equally important.

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