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Can Technology Promote Weight Loss?

New research shows tracking apps are a useful tool in losing weight.

Key points

  • Excess weight contributes to health problems for people across the globe.
  • New research shows digital tracking apps can help to promote weight loss.
  • Small amounts of sustained weight loss improve health and overall wellness.
Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock
Source: Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock

More than half of the world’s population is overweight or obese, a trend that is contributing to significant health problems in people across the globe. Obesity is a major risk factor for many chronic health problems including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Encouraging people to lose weight is one solution, but the evidence shows that weight loss is difficult and rarely sustained.

A new systematic review demonstrates that technology can play an important role. The meta-analysis conducted by public health researchers at the University of Cambridge in England took a careful look at whether digital self-monitoring—for example, tracking eating behaviors and physical activity using an app—promotes weight loss.

The review includes 12 randomized-controlled trials of wellness programs that use phone applications, websites, text messages, or some combination of these to track diet and physical activity. The analysis demonstrates that digital-self monitoring is effective at improving weight loss, increasing physical activity, and reducing calorie intake for overweight and obese adults.

Participants in these programs had a mean weight loss of more than six pounds and consumed an average of 180 fewer calories a day. While that may not sound like much, there is clear evidence that this small amount of weight loss coupled with healthy behaviors reduces obesity-related illness and death.

What Kind of Program Works Best?

Delving further into the studies, the researchers found that variations in the details of the program made a difference. Of the studies in the review, five included additional advice by a health care provider and four provided tailored advice to individual participants.

The analysis found that the tailored advice was significantly more effective than the more generic interventions, but that follow-up by a health care provider did not significantly improve weight loss.

When thinking about the health and wellness of people who are overweight, long-term maintenance is a primary challenge because biological, behavioral, and environmental factors combine to promote the re-gaining of weight that was lost.

But even small amounts of sustained weight loss make a difference. Evidence shows that losing five to ten percent of starting body weight lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and takes a significant amount of stress off of the body’s joints.

The take-home message: Digital tracking apps are useful tools for promoting weight loss and physical activity. And it doesn’t take much! Even small, sustained losses help people to avoid weight-related illnesses.

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