woman looking at fitness apps on smartphone
Health & Fitness

When You Should - or Shouldn't - Use a Fitness App for Weight Loss

In the new year, hundreds of thousands of people resolve to lose weight and/or become more active. And a smart fitness device like Apple Watch or Fitbit might seem like a great way to track calories and steps.

But, experts advise, be sure you’re  using a device or app for the right purpose and that you understand its limitation.

Irfan M. Asif, M.D, the chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that for smart fitness devices or apps to help, the person using them needs to be motivated.

“If you aren’t in a stage that is ready to make a change, the watch or tracker isn’t going to do anything for you,” Asif said. “You have to incorporate things like nutrition, exercise and behavior changes in order to lose weight. The device can be helpful, but you need to be in the right mindset to do some of those things.”

There are five behavior change steps people typically follow before they lose weight. According to Asif, the first stage is pre-contemplation, followed by contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. Those who will benefit the most from smart fitness devices or apps need to be at least in the contemplation or preparation phases.

“You need to be in a frame of mind to want to make a change,” Asif explained. “Those who are considering buying a device or downloading an app may be motivated to incorporate movement into their daily routines, which would later bring them into action and, hopefully, then maintenance to sustain healthy habits throughout their lives.”

On the other hand, Asif said, the watch won’t be useful for people who aren’t technologically savvy or do not have any desire to make changes to their lifestyle.

Many of the devices track calories burned through steps or activity; but despite what your watch or Fitbit tells you, the calorie count may not be as accurate as you think.

Even if you don’t get a device, you can consider getting a workout buddy to keep you honest about your fitness program.

According to Asif, the calories are tracked through a formula that looks at age, height, gender and weight.

“Most of the programs do not account for someone’s fitness level,” Asif said, “so a fit person like a professional athlete may burn more calories than someone who is the same height and weight, but not at the same fitness level as the athlete.”

If your goal is to get exact calorie counts, it is best to correlate your fitness device with a food diary to track what you eat, whether that with pen and paper or through an app that automatically has the calorie counts for various foods.

Smart watches of different colors

As for the 10,000 steps that Fitbit classifies as a daily goal, do we really need to reach this number every day to maintain a healthy lifestyle? If you want to lose weight at a safe rate of one pound per week, it may be best to put your walking shoes on, monitor your step count and try to hit that number.

Asif says the 10,000 steps measurement is derived from the goal of losing one pound per week.

“A pound is 3,500 calories, so if you want to lose one pound per week, you need to eat or burn 500 fewer calories [per day] than you have eaten or burned in the past,” Asif said. “The programs that use 10,000 steps are basically trying to get you to burn 500 calories per day.”

Social support may also be a factor. “Humans are social by nature, so if you are motivated to work out with others, whether in a virtual space or in real life, the apps and devices may help motivate you,” Asif explained. Even if you don’t use a device, Asif said, “You can consider getting a workout buddy to help keep you honest about your workout program.”

While competition may be a motivator for some, “do not compare yourself to someone else, because everyone is different,” Asif said. “Set goals for yourself, and if it helps you, use the apps or devices to track your progress. Many who see success with weight loss or fitness goals will continue to be motivated and maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

Known for its innovative and interdisciplinary approach to education at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is an internationally renowned research university and academic medical center and is a two-time recipient of the prestigious Center for Translational Science Award. To learn more, click here.


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