Though employers and health insurers are increasingly handing out wearable devices to help plan members stay healthy, wearing a fitness tracker many not help you shed any pounds, according to a recent study.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh tested 470 overweight or obese adults ages 18 to 35 to test if wearable devices combined with behavioral health interventions would increase weight loss compared with those who did not wear a tracking device. The study may mean bad news for the many employers and health insurers who tout wearable devices as a way for plan members to stay engaged in their health.
Participants in the study, which was published in JAMA this week, were placed on a low-calorie diet, prescribed increases in exercise, and went to weekly group counseling sessions on health and nutrition for the first six months and then less frequently for the remainder of the 24-month study. At the six month mark, participants began receiving telephone counseling sessions, text message prompts and access to study materials through a website over the next 18 months.
Also at six months, half of the participants were given wearable devices to monitor their diet and exercise routines. The other half self-monitored their diet and physical activity using only a website designed for the study.
Weight loss was monitored in six month intervals, and participants were paid $100 for completing each of the four assessments.
At the end of the 24-month trial, participants who were given wearable devices lost an average 7.7 pounds, while those who tracked their progress through the website lost an average 13 pounds.
“Our findings show that adding (wearable devices) to behavioral counseling for weight loss that includes physical activity and reduced calorie intake does not improve weight loss or physical activity engagement. Therefore, within this context, these devices should not be relied upon as tools for weight management in place of effective behavioral counseling for physical activity and diet,” John Jakicic, the study's lead researcher and chair of the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Health and Physical Activity, said.
According to a 2016 survey of large employers by Xerox HR Services and the National Business Group on Health, 38% of the more than 200 large employers surveyed use wearable devices in the workplace to help employees improve their physical health and help reduce health costs. Most employers surveyed had between 1,000 and 5,000 employees.
Health insurers have also jumped on the wearable device bandwagon in the last few years.
For instance, UnitedHealthcare and technology company Qualcomm teamed up in March to develop a wellness program that gives wearable devices to fully insured UnitedHealthcare plan participants free of charge. Even without evidence that wearable devices lead to greater weight loss, the explosive growth in the wearable device industry shows no signs of slowing down: Analysts at market research firm IDTEchEx estimate that the industry will be worth $150 billion by 2026, up from $30 billion this year.