December 10, 2012 / 9:10 PM / 8 years ago

Weight loss? There's an app for that

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Mobile devices that let people track how much they eat and exercise may help them shed pounds over and above the benefits of a typical weight-loss program, a new study suggests.

Researchers found overweight and obese adults lost an average of over eight pounds more when they had personal digital assistants (PDAs) and occasional phone coaching to help them in addition to a group program.

There’s no reason to think the same wouldn’t hold true for smart phone apps that can log nutrition and activity information and give real-time feedback, they said.

“The number one mechanism through which people lose weight is self-monitoring, just watching what you eat and keeping a record of it,” said Dr. Goutham Rao, from the NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois.

Rao, who wrote a commentary published with the new study, noted that programs for mobile devices are easily personalized - and readily available wherever people carry their phones or PDAs.

“I’m actually very optimistic that people who are motivated, who can couple the technology with in-person counseling and management are going to be very successful,” he told Reuters Health.

The new study included 69 overweight and obese people in their late 50s, on average, who were referred to a Veterans Affairs clinic for weight-loss support.

All were enrolled in 12 group sessions over six months, which focused on nutrition, exercise and behavioral changes to promote weight loss. Half of the participants were also given a PDA to record their food and activity throughout the day and had a coach who checked in with them by phone.

Most of the study subjects were men who didn’t know much about technology - which made them an extra hard group to reach, said lead researcher Bonnie Spring, from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

After six months in the trial, people in the PDA group had lost an average of almost 10 pounds, and 41 percent of them had met the goal of losing at least five percent of their initial body weight. Those in the comparison group had dropped just over two pounds each, on average, and 11 percent had achieved the weight-loss goal.

And at the one-year mark - six months after the mobile devices were taken away - people who’d used the PDAs had managed to keep off most of the weight they initially lost, Spring’s team reported Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

“The issue has always been that it’s possible to help anyone lose weight as long as you invest enough time or money into the effort,” Rao said.

The benefits of using an app on a mobile device, he said, are that it can be cheaper and widely available - and can help re-engage people who are having trouble, unlike an in-person program with a specific end date.

Although PDAs have mostly fallen out of fashion, the researchers said smart phones can serve the same purpose as the devices used in the study. Spring said most weight-loss apps on the market haven’t been scientifically tested but may still help people drop extra pounds.

However, Rao added, there’s evidence that apps alone don’t have much of an impact on weight loss. It may be more helpful to think of the technology as something that augments help from a primary care doctor or nutritionist, he said.

Spring agreed.

“An app and some human support, coaching, nutrition education - that combination of things will help,” she told Reuters Health.

“The most important thing is to use the app for decision support and keeping track, but also to get the social support.”

SOURCE: Archives of Internal Medicine, online December 10, 2012.

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