What are Wearables Able and Not Able To Do For Weight Management?

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What are Wearables Able and Not Able To Do For Weight Management?
By Bruce Y. Lee, MD MBA
Twitter: @bruce_y_lee

Wait! Can wearables really help you lose weight? What exactly are wearables able to do?

The wearable market is growing. One estimate is that sales of smart wearables will hit $34 billion in 2020. That would be lots of wearables sold (411 million) and lots o’ cash involved.

What exactly are smart wearables (as opposed to stupid wearables)?  Otherwise known as “wearable technology“, “wearable devices“, or simply “wearables,” this term refers to electronic devices or other technology that you can wear somewhere on your body. Of course, the key is that these are designed specifically to be comfortably worn on your body. Thus, a desktop computer and a monitor strapped to your head may not really count.
Wearable technologies don’t just sit on your body. Otherwise, they’d be considered just clothes or fashion accessories. Their purpose is to monitor something that you or your body does, provide information to you, deliver some type of therapy or treatment, or some combination of these things.
You can group wearables by where they go on your body. Common examples include those that go on your:

  • Eyes: such as smart glasses.
  • Fingers: such as smart rings, smart fingers, and smart gloves.
  • Head and neck: such as smart hats, smart headbands, and smart necklaces
  • Wrists: such as smart bracelets and smart watches.
  • Chest: such as smart shirts or smart jackets.
  • Waist: such as smart belts or devices that can be clipped on your belt
  • Legs: such as smart pants or smart leg bands
  • Feet: such as smart socks or smart shoes

Notice a pattern here? If you have a body part, someone will develop a device to go on it. Of course, there are already condom wearables, which can help track sexual activity and offer feedback, as I described for Forbes. There are even implantables, things that can be placed under your skin or in your body. For example, I wrote previously for Forbes about how researchers are developing smart tattoos, ink that can be injected under your skin and change color when different aspects of your body chemistry change. In theory, you could wear so many wearables at once that you feel like a Christmas tree.

Among the most common purposes of wearables is to help increase physical activity, moderate your diet, and lose weight. For example, fitness trackers can show how many steps you take each day, how frequently you (or at least the fitness tracker) are moving around, how often you get your heart rate up, and how long you are sleeping each day. They can then offer feedback on whether you are reaching certain physical activity goals. The thought is that during the day without reminders, it may be difficult to remember to get enough physical activity. Thus, the fitness tracker can serve as your “personal trainer,” “coach”, or nudge.
However, detractors argue that such devices may not be that useful and in some cases can be harmful. One argument is that they make you focus on a few select measures such as number of steps taken rather than all of the complexities that affect your health. For example, you may think that you have achieved your goals for the day just because you took enough steps when maintaining a healthy lifestyle is much more complicated than that. Another argument is that such devices will not really change your behavior and lifestyle. It overlooks the complex systems that affect what you do and your health each day. A third argument is that such devices unfairly place the responsibility and blame on the individual for weight challenges. Finally, there are privacy concerns, that the data being collected can be either stolen or sold to others, as I described previously for Forbes.  

This Holiday season wearables may be on your shopping list or land in your gift baskets. Therefore, it is a good time for #obsm chat to ask:
  1. What has been your experience with wearables as either someone who has used them or a health care professional with patients who have used them?
  1. How might wearable technologies help with weight management? What specific wearables have you found to be useful and how?
  1. How might wearable technologies hurt with weight management? What are some specific examples?
  1. What advice and other interventions need to be paired with wearables for them to be effective for helping with weight management?
  1. What should health professional do about wearables? For example, what should they discuss with patients?  
  1. What should be the future of wearables? What changes need to be made and what new technologies need to be developed?

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