Why Widgets Don’t Work

Kayla Reynolds, MS

We’ve previously addressed why traditional wellness solutions fail.

Tracking health behavior, including food intake and physical activity, is often promoted as a way to promote weight loss and improve health outcomes. However, recent research actually suggests that activity trackers might even undermine weight loss efforts. A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that individuals who were given a wearable activity tracking device with a behavioral weight loss intervention lost no more weight than individuals who received a behavioral weight loss intervention alone. In fact, two years after the initial intervention, individuals who received the wearable technology lost significantly less weight than those who did not.

So what does this mean?

The widget can’t do the work for you!

Simply relying on a device to monitor activity does not implicitly make someone more active. It’s a passive form of monitoring, which quite frankly deprives people of the opportunity to learn about themselves and their exercise habits — they don’t have to think about or internalize their how many steps they are taking, how much activity they’ve done, or how they’ve progressed since last week. Taking the back-seat clearly does not help you lose weight, and this study proves that it might even stunt it.

Although these findings have ruffled some feathers in industry, we can’t say we’re surprised.

Shiny wearables are fun at first, but the fun wears off real fast. True, these devices can help support weight loss short-term, but research has continuously shown that tracking alone is not enough to sustain behavior change and promote weight loss long-term.

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. There are scientifically proven weight loss programs out there!

A comprehensive approach that focuses on creating long-term healthy habits, specifically good nutrition and regular physical activity, is the only way to maintain weight loss long-term. The very basic requirements of any weight loss intervention must include prescribing a reduced-calorie diet and an increase in physical activity.

Platforms that have been validated to promote significant weight loss include structured programs (education), self-monitoring (the ability to track food intake and activity), goal setting, social support (a group of peers), coaching (a knowledgeable health coach), and feedback (via coaching and artificial intelligence). These are recognized as the fundamental features in a successful behavior change model, and including these features in weight loss interventions can promote greater weight loss and improve health outcomes.

Many players in the market, including Noom, have created platforms that fill the gaps in existing wellness (not-so) “solutions” such as wearable devices. We’ve developed clinically validated programs that promote sustained weight loss and long-term behavior change, based on the CDC’s Diabetes Prevention Program, which provides users with the education, guidance, and support that makes long-term weight loss possible.

Behavior change is not about fancy gadgets — it’s about education, self-awareness, practice, and hard work to overcome psychological barriers and develop healthy habits. It requires individuals be active participants in their journey, and not trying to let a widget do the work.

4 thoughts on “Why Widgets Don’t Work”

  1. Aldahbra says:

    Actually the study didn’t say that the activity trackers undermine weightloss. All participants in the study who had activity trackers lost weight. What it said was the group who recorded their activity and meals using a pen and paper method lost the most weight. That means activity trackers work but if you use a full paper recording method it works better.

  2. Patricia Sirois says:

    Well, I have been super motivated and super successful using Fitbit Flex as my entry into the fitness tracking world. It has taught me where I was falling down before, and I have incrementally moved to a more and more healthy and active lifestyle, and at the age of 64 have lost 30 lbs. in 3 months, fine-tuning my nutrition, parking farther away, etc. It definitely can work, as long as you are motivated. I’m a huge fan!

  3. Andrea Gardner says:

    May be true if all you do is wear your tracker. I’ve found that my Fitbit Charge hR has been the best thing I’ve ever tried to support healthy activity and lose weight and I’m 58. In your online Fitbit account you can do all those things you suggest. The Fitbits were part of an employee wellness program so we have groups and challenges to support each other. If you put in how much weight you want to lose per week and log your food, it will tell you how many calories you can still eat depending on how active you were. I don’t think it’s the technology, it’s how you use the technology.

  4. Jeremiah Halstead says:

    It also doesn’t help if you lie to the tracker… which I am prone to do

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