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How to Use Your Fitness Tracker For Weight Loss

An RD's Weight-Loss Tips For You and Your Fitness Tracker

Don't trash your well-loved fitness tracker just yet! RD Julie Upton, cofounder of Appetite For Health, shares five ways your tracker can actually help with dropping pounds.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that overweight participants in a diet study who wore fitness trackers actually lost less weight, compared to those who followed the same diet and exercise plan, albeit without any wearable monitoring devices.

While the dieters wearing trackers lost 7.7 pounds in two years, those who didn't have fitness monitors lost 13 pounds. Even though previous research has reported that wearable technology can motivate people to help them lose weight, the authors of this study point out that those studies were short-term and had limited participants.

If you live by the data from your Fitbit, Jawbone, or other device, here are five ways to use it to help you peel off pounds:

Focus on Food First, Exercise Second

When it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, studies consistently show that diet is more important than exercise. In fact, trying to lose weight through exercise alone is a lousy idea because food packs in so many many calories relative to what you burn off from exercise. And, when it comes to behaviors associated with weight loss, frequent weigh-ins, limiting or avoiding alcohol, and monitoring what you eat are three common keys to success.

Avoid Food Rewards

How many times have you rewarded yourself after noticing how many steps you had or how many calories you burned? Speaking to NPR, the lead researcher of the JAMA study, John Jakicic, PhD, explained: "People would say, 'Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.' And they might eat more than they otherwise would have."

According to registered dietitian James Stevens, MS, RD, "Even though trackers easily show you how many calories you've burned, they can't tell you the other side of the energy balance equation — how many calories you've eaten. You need to pay more attention to the 'calories in' portion of the equation to see the scale budge. Just one or two poor food choices can negate all the extra calories burned from exercise." Instead, use non-food "rewards" to celebrate success, like a mani/pedi, reading a chapter in a new book, taking a long bath, downloading new music, or sleeping in!

Be More Mindful

According to Andreas Michaelides, PhD, chief psychology officer at Noom Inc. (a wellness app with a personalized coaching element), trackers alone aren't the best way to help you achieve weight-loss success because they're a passive approach to monitoring, so your brain doesn't fully acknowledge your diet and exercise behaviors. "Being more involved and mindful around eating and exercise is an important part of achieving weight-loss success." To use your tracker in a more meaningful and engaged way, use its web-based interface to download and monitor your activity as well as your daily food intake

Personalize Your Device

For more accurate measures of activity and calories, be sure to enter your age, sex, height, and weight into your tracker when setting it up. These data impact the computations that trackers make to more accurately determine calories burned. Also, as a general rule, wear the device on your non-dominant arm/wrist, because research shows when devices are worn on the dominant hand/arm, they may overestimate activity and calories burned.

It's All Relative

Most monitoring devices — bathroom scales, diet trackers, gym equipment, or wearable fitness trackers — have margins or error. The best way to use data from any device is to consider it relative and compare it to yesterday, last week, last month, or last year. If you see that the scale isn't budging and can tell that your activity has dropped or stalled — you know you need to move more (or eat less or both) to peel off pounds.

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