Technology Can Help Boost Weight Loss
December 11, 2012

Mobile App Helps Users Lose 15 Pounds And Keep The Weight Off

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

There seems to be an app for everything these days. Gaming app, check. Note taking app, check. There are even apps to help individuals lose weight. In particular, researchers at Northwestern University recently discovered that a mobile app helped individuals increase weight loss by 15 pounds through the tracking of calories and activity; even with these great results, the scientists believe that people who want to lose weight with the help of an app also need support from others.

The study from Northwestern Medicine also found that the weight was kept off for at least a year.

"The app is important because it helps people regulate their behavior, which is really hard to do," explained the study´s lead researcher Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a prepared statement. "Most of us have no idea how many calories we consume and how much physical activity we get. The app gives you feedback on this and helps you make smart decisions in the moment."

The findings of the study were recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and the users of the apps were also enrolled in exercise and nutrition classes.

"The 'widget' is critical but it is not magical by itself," continued Spring in the statement. "People need all the tools at their disposal."

The study was conducted from October 2007 to September 2010 with two groups. 69 overweight and obese individuals, many of whom were men, participated in the study and all were given the opportunity to enroll in classes on behavior change, exercise, and nutrition twice a month during the first six months and then one each month for the rest of the year. A mobile device was given to the participants to send their data to a behavioral coach, who was able to coach them via phone for 10 to 15 minutes two times a month while also monitoring their information. Weight was measured at randomization, as well as at follow-up visits following three, six, nine and 12-month periods. The participants also had weekly calorie goals depending on their current weight and then also weekly activity goals based off of their current activity level.

The team of investigators believes that this is the first study to explore the impact of technology along with a program of weight loss classes. The study is also based off of validated behavior change techniques such as goal setting, self-monitoring, feedback and social support.

"In sum, this study highlights the promise of a mobile technology system as a scalable, cost-effective means to augment the effectiveness of physician-directed weight loss treatment," wrote the authors in the report. "Technology offers new channels to reconfigure the provision of effective components of behavioral weight loss treatment (i.e., self-monitoring, goal setting, lifestyle counseling and in-person sessions)."

Based on the findings, those who utilized the mobile phone technology and participated in 80 percent of the health education lessons lost 15 pounds and kept off the weight for one year. The average weight loss among the mobile phone users was 8.6 pounds, while the control group that received education sessions but not the mobile app did not lose weight. The researchers explained how the time with the mobile coaches was minimal.

"The coaches' most important role was being in the wings," noted Spring in the statement. "The patients know the coaches are hovering and supportively holding them accountable. They know somebody is watching and caring and that's what makes a difference."

Interestingly enough, older participants who did not have access to mobile technology prior to the study were able to pick up the technology very quickly.

"Some people think older people won't use technology interventions, but that isn't so," mentioned Spring in the statement.

Overall, the researchers believe that a challenge in treating obesity is the difficulty in finding physicians who have the time and training to providing intensive behavioral treatment.

"This approach empowers patients to help themselves on a day-to-day basis," concluded Spring in the statement. "We can help people lose meaningful amounts of weight and keep it off. To do that we need to engage them in tracking their own eating and activity, learn how that governs weight, and take advantage of social support."

A commentary by Dr. Goutham Rao and Dr. Katherine Kirley of the University of Chicago Pritker School of Medicine and NorthShore University Health System accompanied the paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine and addressed the impact of technology in weight loss.

"We need to know what specific features of technology make it successful for weight loss. Is it, for example, convenience, personalization, or interactivity? These features could be incorporated into future tools no matter what form they take," wrote the authors in the commentary. "These and related questions are now becoming the focus of intense research.”