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Q&A: Can fitness trackers help with weight loss?

Two University of Minnesota Health weight loss experts discuss wearable fitness trackers—and the importance of having a support network to meet weight loss goals.
Fitness trackers may offer some advantages for those pursuing weight loss goals, but a new study suggests that old-fashioned social support, coaching and counseling are still key. We asked two University of Minnesota Health weight loss care providers to share their perspective.
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Do wearable fitness trackers—like pedometers or heart rate monitors—help people lose weight and live healthier, or should we stick to the old-fashioned methods, including gym buddies, individual coaching or support groups?

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recently gave half the participants in a study wearable trackers to see what effect they would have on weight loss. All members of the group were enrolled in a behavioral weight loss program that included coaching and counseling. At the end of the study, the group that used fitness trackers lost less weight on average than those who did not use trackers, but instead tracked food consumption and activity tracking online. Study participants using wearable fitness trackers reported an average weight loss of 7.7 pounds, while those who participated in the online tracking lost an average of 13.3 pounds, according to the study.

We asked Weight Management Specialist Charles Billington, MD, the director of medical weight loss management for University of Minnesota Health, and Barb Sampson, a nurse coordinator with the our  Weight Loss Management and Surgery Program, for their opinions on the study’s findings and effective weight loss strategies.

To begin, does this study really tell us whether it’s better to use a fitness tracker?

Charles Billington, MD: No. This study didn’t actually tackle that question—which I think is the question a lot of people would like answered. Surprisingly, this topic hasn’t been the subject of substantial research yet.

Then what question does it answer?

Billington: To summarize: The study found that if you lost weight and you want to keep it off, the fitness tracker is not better than having standard weight loss approaches which include regular interactions with a care provider and keeping track of your diet and exercise by yourself.

So, what can we learn from this study?

Billington: If you’ve lost weight and want to keep it off, it’s good to keep in contact with weight loss professionals on a monthly basis. Other studies have shown that fitness trackers can help maintain a healthy lifestyle in some ways. This study does not contradict that—or indicate that people should avoid using fitness trackers.

Do you use a fitness tracker yourself and would you recommend them to your patients?

Billington: I do use one myself—and a lot of my patients employ one as well. I support that use and I do recommend them occasionally. We don’t always recommend use of a fitness tracker because many of our patients are not healthy enough to do much exercise. Many others who are healthy enough may not have the budget to buy such a device.

Barb, you run a support group for patients who are considering weight loss surgery or those who have already had it. What can patients get from groups like these?

Barb Sampson: Patients that attend our “New U” support group may find it helpful. Participation keeps them motivated to lose weight, maintain weight and be healthy. The group also offers monthly accountability and provides members with a chance to talk to others who are going through the same life journey. Participants have the opportunity to share their weight loss success stories, bring up any questions or concerns and receive information from guest speakers. Patients who are considering weight loss surgery can learn about the process and experience from other patients. As a facilitator, I utilize my Intrinsic Coach training and over 30 years of nursing experience to reinforce good strategies and weed out any potentially risky or ineffective strategies for overall health and wellbeing.

Learn more about our Weight Loss Management and Surgery services.

In your role, do you see a direct correlation between patients that utilize support groups and their success with weight loss?

Sampson: We have not formally studied that question in our group. However, patients who attend the support group state that their weight loss can be in part attributed to their support group participation. Other patients state they attend because the group has made such a powerful impact in their lives. Research studies have repeatedly found a positive association between support groups and weight loss after surgery.

Is it also helpful for patients to develop a personal support system outside of a traditional support group like the one you run? 

Sampson: Definitely. I recommend that our patients receive support from family, friends and a support group so that they have more than one source for their motivation and encouragement. Support can also come from our team as we help patients clarify and stick to their health goals. No matter the support source, it can be easier to live a healthy lifestyle when you share the experience with others.

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