If you use a fitness tracker for weight loss, you probably take it for granted that keeping tabs on how much you move encourages you to exercise more, which should—at least in theory—help you reach your weight loss goal. But new research that examined exactly how activity trackers affect exercise levels and weight loss suggests otherwise—to everyone's surprise.
In the study, which was published in the medical journal JAMA, researchers who tracked weight loss among 500 adults asked to follow a reduced-calorie diet for two years were seriously caught off guard six months into the study, when they instructed half of the dieters to start using fitness tracking devices to tally steps walked and calories burned. Eighteen months later, the dieters who'd simply logged their daily exercise online without using a tracker lost an average of 5 more pounds than the dieters who took up activity tracking.
As it happened, those who tracked their steps using a device ended up moving less. While the exact reason is unclear, those who used fitness trackers could have been so discouraged by failing to meet their activity goals that they just gave up instead of being as active as possible during whatever workout time they had—a habit that could have interfered with weight loss, as study authors told the New York Times.
But at the end of the day, diet tends to play an even greater role than exercise in weight loss. So it's possible that the dieters who tracked their steps used the data they collected to rationalize eating more compensatory calories—and eating extra calories is the fastest way to move the scale in the wrong direction.
Still, more research is needed to say whether using your FitBit, iWatch, or Jawbone tracker for weight loss is a bad idea—particularly because the device used in this study was a dated one worn on the upper arm, not on the wrist like so many of today's mainstream trackers. And who knows—maybe seeing your tracker every time you pick up a fork (or the remote) can also play a role in how much you eat and move.
Another thing: Because the trackers used in the study were automated, researchers didn't look at the effects of different model's functionality: "Trackers have come such a long way in terms of engaging features, software, app experiences, social networks, etc., so it’s unfair to draw conclusions about the benefits of wearables or trackers generally based on the limited way they were used in the study," according to a FitBit spokesperson.
Still, if you need to lose weight and activity tracking makes you miserable, you feel guilty for ditching your old fitness tracker, or your don’t feel like splurging on a device, the findings just confirm that you probably don’t need a fancy toy to lose weight—in which case, ~*aMeN*~.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.