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Digital Tools May Help with Weight Loss, Study Suggests

Woman using a fitness tracking app while eating.
Oscar Wong / Getty Images.

Key Takeaways

  • Monitoring physical activity and diet may help those who are overweight or have obesity, a research review found.
  • Tailored interventions proved to be more effective than more generalized programs.
  • Previous research highlights the role of using these tools for competition and accountability to maintain motivation.

Monitoring physical activity levels, calorie intake, and weight by using digital tools designed for that purpose can be effective for supporting weight loss and getting more exercise, according to a research review in Obesity Reviews.

Researchers looked at 12 randomized controlled trials involving a total of about 1,200 people classified as overweight or having obesity, who used digital interventions that included web-based tools, mobile apps, text messages, or a combination of those.

Some trials included wearable tech like fitness trackers as well. Study duration ranged from three to 12 months, with weight recorded at several intervals along the way, and the studies all included control groups that didn’t use digital tools, as a way to compare results.

Those who used the digital tools saw considerably more weight loss compared to people in the control groups, according to the study’s lead author, Rhiannon Berry, MPhil, who completed the work as part of her master’s degree in public health at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

They also improved physical activity and reduced calorie intake, she adds, and this seemed to be especially significant for those who had tailored interventions rather than generalized programs or apps.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the severity of the obesity crisis,” says Berry. “Our research contributes to the evidence supporting the use of digital health tech in the fight against obesity.”

Study Importance

The prevalence of obesity has been increasing worldwide and has been called an epidemic due to its potential health ramifications for increasing chronic disease risk. This includes an increased prevalence of:

  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Respiratory problems
  • Chronic pain

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control has reported that 13 cancers associated with being overweight or having obesity make up 40% of all U.S. cancers, and include thyroid, breast, liver, pancreatic, ovarian, and others.

Lack of physical activity and increased intake of highly caloric foods have both been shown to be significant factors for individuals, Berry says, but behavioral interventions have shown only a modest effect for addressing those long-term.

Rhiannon Berry, MPhil

Digital interventions, by contrast, have potential to reach a much larger number of people

— Rhiannon Berry, MPhil

“Although promising, these efforts tend to require many resources and can be time-consuming,” she says, adding that they’re not widely available and affordable for everyone. That’s because they often require in-person visits with healthcare professionals and that can create limitations.

“Digital interventions, by contrast, have potential to reach a much larger number of people,” says Berry. “They can be obtained at a lower cost, while still offering behavior change tools and theories for individuals.”

Why They Work

More research needs to be done about how these tools can be used most effectively and what aspects of them seem to work best, Berry says, especially long-term. She adds that previous research suggests that these types of self-monitoring tools tend to see adherence rates drop over time.

That said, the ones involving tailored interventions could be more successful. That’s because options like friendly competition, rewards, milestone acknowledgment, and text message reminders can all help people stick to their goals, says Mitesh Patel, MD, founding director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit.

Mitesh Patel, MD

Putting an element of fun into using the digital tools was very important because it encouraged people to keep going with their healthy habits.

— Mitesh Patel, MD

For example, his lab conducted a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine on workplace fitness device usage and found people who used them in a competitive way were much more likely to increase their daily step count. Those who only looked at the data on their own and didn’t share it were more likely to abandon the effort soon after the end of the research period.

“Putting an element of fun into using the digital tools was very important because it encouraged people to keep going with their healthy habits,” Patel says. “That’s the same as any kind of healthy behavior change. If you enjoy doing it, you’ll stick with it.” That means to utilize digital tools most effectively, he suggests it’s worth playing around with different strategies to see which features you like the most.

What This Means For You

Digital tools like apps and web-based programs can help with weight loss, particularly on a short-term basis. For long-term results, experts advise finding what you enjoy, which makes you more likely to stick with the effort.

 

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  1. Berry R, Kassavou A, Sutton S. Does self-monitoring diet and physical activity behaviors using digital technology support adults with obesity or overweight to lose weight? A systematic literature review with meta-analysis. Obes Rev. Published online June 30, 2021. doi:10.1111/obr.13306

  2. Turner-McGrievy GM, Dunn CG, Wilcox S, et al. Defining adherence to mobile dietary self-monitoring and assessing tracking over time: tracking at least two eating occasions per day is best marker of adherence within two different mobile health randomized weight loss interventionsJ Acad Nutr. 2019;119(9):1516-1524. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2019.03.012

  3. Patel MS, Small DS, Harrison JD, et al. Effectiveness of behaviorally designed gamification interventions with social incentives for increasing physical activity among overweight and obese adults across the United States: the STEP UP randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(12):1624. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.3505