When tracking steps is the wrong step to take
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The latest research to shake up the fitness and health industry shows that wearing a fitness tracker to monitor your level of activity does not contribute to weight loss. With obesity rates affecting a third of the United States population, this comes as dismal news to those hoping that this billion-dollar industry would begin to make a dent in those statistics.

The study, published this month in JAMA, was a large two-year randomized clinical trial conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, which followed two cohorts of participants — a standard group and an enhanced group whom were given a device to track their activity six months into the study. All other interventions were matched between the groups.

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There are some valid reasons that have been cited as to why the enhanced group did not achieve better results, including the use of more dated upper arm trackers versus their more modern and comfortable wrist counterparts, particularly by those in the tracking industry. Although this is very likely a limiting factor, there are other reasons to consider as well.

A few years ago, my husband took a turn as a self-proclaimed fitness tracker junkie, wearing it daily and keeping it charged to make sure he never missed any steps that could be logged. He began when he received one as a gift and competed with three of his friends to see who could take the prize of most daily steps. He did everything he could to increase his step count; parking further away, taking the stairs, and even walking on his breaks at work. Although he saw his steps increase significantly and often won the daily step prize, the scale remained stagnant.

He was surprised when he got the results to his yearly cholesterol check after tracking his steps for over a year and they did not look good. After all those steps, he still saw his health trending downward. Naturally, being married to a health coach, he turned to me for advice. We walked through his health goals and his concern around a family history of heart issues. We took it step by step and worked together to overhaul his food choices, the types of exercise he was doing, and even his stress and sleep levels.

The issue with simply tracking steps was that the only number he became concerned with was how many he reached each day. On days he didn’t hit his target number or reached more steps than his friends, he became discouraged. His tracker started getting left on the charger for longer, was forgotten about some days and eventually thrown into the junk drawer next to the kitchen scissors and useless cords collected over the years. He also opted for exercises that registered high on his step tracker, instead of prizing greater intensity over distance. Seeing the amount of calories he burned made him feel that he earned the right to have more flexibility in his food choices.

With the incredible speed and breadth of information that we constantly have at our fingertips, we can become paralyzed with choices. We hear one day that hitting 10 thousand steps daily is the golden ticket to health, then the next day that if we just go gluten free, our health problems will be solved. The key that is missing in this new environment of information, technology and medical intervention is a way to find what is most important to us in our health and how to take the right steps to get us there.

Health coaching is a profession that has been around for decades and is now gaining momentum in its important role of pivoting outcomes of health for our unwell country. Using principles from motivational interviewing and positive psychology, (both long researched and used in the therapy profession), health coaches help people find their motivation for making change, their strengths they can rely on to be consistent in that change, and help them identify barriers that can get in the way.

Using fitness trackers can be an excellent source of data for many people and this study shouldn’t dissuade those finding it helpful to stop using them but the missing piece that many need to succeed is a connection between what those numbers mean and how they can affect the bigger picture of their overall health. Learning how daily nutrition fits in with step count and how stress or travel can derail a routine are important components that are individualized for each person. A health coach can stitch together a picture of health and work with an individual to find the right pieces and materials to achieve it.

I’m happy to report that after working together on meal planning, cutting back on a few less than healthy habits, and adding in more high intensity work-outs, my husband came back with an excellent bill of health a few months later and even lost 20 lbs. I bought him an upgraded fitness tracker that counts high intensity workouts and he uses it to help inform his decisions towards a healthy lifestyle but not as the main dictator of them.

With such technological advances in the areas of health, finding the right balance between important daily habits while deciding where to focus our energy and how to manage our busy lives is an essential step to achieving lasting change.

Jennifer Gibson is the Head of Coaching for Vida Health. After receiving her Bachelor's Degree in Exercise Science and her Master's Degree in Dietetics, Jennifer spent several years in private practice as a Nutritionist. She then worked for several years in the corporate wellness field leading health coaching teams. Jennifer was brought on as the first employee at Vida before it's launch and has since built the nationwide health coaching network who deliver optimal results to clients through a personalized approach. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.