11 Apr 2021

Digital health tools associated with weight loss

From Sunday Morning, 10:44 am on 11 April 2021

A ground-breaking new study has found that self-monitoring using digital health tools - including apps, wearables and websites - is associated with weight loss.

Study co-author Dr Shelley Patel, from the Stanford University School of Medicine, specialises in researching digital health strategies for obesity treatment and prevention.

She joined Sunday Morning to discuss the study, which was published online in Obesity, The Obesity Society's flagship journal.


Fitness Photo: 123RF

The long and short of it, Dr Patel says, is that digital monitoring tools are not a marketing gimmick, they actually work for people.

“There has been a previous review about a decade ago that looked at self-monitoring for weight loss but almost none of the studies involved digital health, so this is really the first focus on digital health tools for self-monitoring.”

And, of course, tech has changed a great deal in the past decade. She says the kind of tools they looked at are one’s where people recorded what they ate, how many steps they were taking, or what their body weight was day to day.

“We found that the most popular tools were websites and mobile apps, particularly commercial apps that exist on your smartphones. Many weight loss programmes included wearable devices – things like a fitness tracker or a watch that is able to track your physical activity throughout the day – were quite common.”

Another device was smart scales that can measure body fat, heart rate and weight and send that data to a user’s phone.

“We need devices that facilitate and promote behaviour change. Self-monitoring is something that has shown to be a strong predictor of weight loss and these tools are able to aid in that process of tracking… it makes the process a lot quicker and less burdensome.

“I think that’s the key and that’s how a lot of digital health products can make this tracking a lot easier.”

They also found that the more people tracked, the more weight they lost.

“We don’t know if the people who lost weight were motivated and therefore continued to track more, or whether the tracking was the driver for the weight loss, but we definitely know they are highly correlated and associated in three out of four weight loss programmes.”

She says that the benefits of tracking could potentially get greater as the technology gets better. For instance, people need to write down what they’re eating to track it, but several people are working on how user’s might be able to just take a photo of the food they’re eating to have it recorded.

While wearable devices might be prohibitively expensive for some people, she says the prices are beginning to come down as more enter the market. And apps for tracking diets are often freely available.

Dr Patel says that a combination of both tracking activity and diet is more beneficial for weight loss and previous studies of activity tracking wearables which claimed they don’t promote weight loss are slightly misguided.

“We know that to promote weight loss, particularly at the beginning, changing your diet is very critical. While physical activity is good for your health, what often drives the weight loss for someone is the dietary change.

“Once you enter the weight loss maintenance portion of your weight loss programme, that’s where physical activity can become really important. Simply working on your physical activity levels from the beginning may not be sufficient.”

She says that wearables can help with the process of getting into physical activity, but people who want to lose weight need to commit to behavioural changes.

“I think it’s technology plus commitment to the weight loss process.”