By now you’ve almost certainly seen the headlines: A new study suggests that wearables, like Fitbit and Garmin, that track daily exercise might actually impair weight loss efforts.

The study in question, done at the University of Pittsburgh (my alma mater!), followed 471 adults for two years, and tested the difference in weight loss between those who used a wearable to track their activity and those who did not. In the end, the study found that participants who used wearables did lose weight, but at a rate just better than half of the participants who did not.

Fitness fans, many of whom have gone in big on wearable technology, rightly raised eyebrows. But what does this really mean?

First, sticking to a scientific perspective, I’d point out that this is just one study. It’s not absolute proof of anything, though it does offer evidence in a particular direction. To say with certainty that your wearable is diminishing your weight loss, we’d need to do a few more studies and see if the results were consistent.

To be less scientific about it, I need to tell a quick personal story. In the early 2000s, when I was about 22 or 23 years old, I made a habit of going walking after work. There was a park nearby the zoo where I worked at the time, and a lap of that park’s paved pedestrian trails was something like 4.5 miles, and a bit hillier than average. So, doing the math, I probably burned around 300, maybe 350 calories each time I walked that park.

Often, the first thing I would do after walking that park was head to IHOP with a friend. Emboldened by the exercise, I would order a big pancake platter and slather it in syrup. When all was said and done, I suspect I was consuming somewhere around 3,500 calories in one sitting–ten times what I’d burned in my lap around the park.

This is what I suspect might be happening with people who use their wearables to track their activity, and it’s not an uncommon behavior for people engaging in regular fitness activities. We miscalculate our calorie burn (through actual math or, like me, rough estimates) and feel justified consuming far more calories than we would otherwise. Doing so here and there won’t have terrible consequences, but extrapolated over a year or two, it will greatly diminish your weight loss results.

I also wonder if some or all of these wearables are adding false steps during activities like driving a car, riding a subway, or even operating a computer mouse. Most work on simple pedometers, and though the technology has advanced enough that today’s pedometers are far more accurate than those available even a few years ago, they are still imperfect. The right kind of motion can throw them off.

Either way, it’s probably too early to throw away your wearable, but it’s a good idea to be honest, maybe even conservative, when calculating your calorie burn. It’s better to err on the side of caution than spend a year thinking your dieting when, in fact, you’re just throwing back pancakes.

Take it from me.


Image credit: Wikimedia commons