Smartphones are not as useful for helping teens maintain
weight loss, suggests a new study.
In a 24-week behavioral study that combined traditional weight
control intervention with smartphone-assisted helps, researchers found
that teens lost weight initially, but couldn't maintain it when
smartphones were the only tool helping them stay on track.
‘Combining fitness apps with social support and accountability are the key to help maintain weight loss in teens.’
"We know that teens are on their phones, which gives us a way to
intervene in the moment," said lead author and BYU psychology professor
Chad Jensen. "We wanted to determine whether we could effectively use
texting and a commercially-available smartphone app to help adolescents
with weight loss."
The study, published in the Journal of Medical Research
took place during two consecutive 12-week periods, the first of which
combined electronic (smartphone) intervention and traditional in-person
treatment. During this period, each of the 16 participants met weekly
with a clinician and other participants to share their experiences and
discuss topics like adopting healthy eating patterns, reading food
labels and increasing physical activity throughout the day.
to these meetings, the teens were encouraged to record their daily food
intake and exercise on the Daily Burn app. They also received text
messages from the researchers three times each day to encourage healthy
behavior and pose thought-provoking questions about motivations.
Study participants achieved modest weight loss during this period, decreasing their BMI by 0.08 points on average.
But the in-person meetings were removed for the second 12 weeks of
the study, so the only interventions helping the teens stay motivated
were the daily texts and self-monitoring on the Daily Burn app. During
this period, self-monitoring rates dropped from nearly 50% to
16.8% and the teens regained their lost weight.
Jensen suggested that a possible reason for this result is that
smartphones, no matter how helpful or easy-to-use, lack certain critical
characteristics present during the in-person treatment.
"The Daily Burn app doesn't include all the things we know are
successful for weight control, like social support and the
accountability that comes with that support," Jensen said. "That support
existed when the teens were meeting with other teens and sharing their
experiences. And that was taken away."
These results emphasize the importance of social support in creating
lasting change and motivating healthy behavior. But this doesn't mean
that smartphone fitness tools are useless - they're just best used as an
add-on to augment other fitness habits by making it easier to track
behavior and progress.
"We know that self-monitoring is really important for weight control
as it helps people be mindful about the foods they're eating, but very
few teens do it because it's so laborious," Jensen said. "Smartphones
were extremely helpful because they made self-monitoring more
efficient - it's much easier to scan a barcode than it is to track every
calorie with paper and pen."
Despite the limitations of current fitness apps on the market,
Jensen is hopeful that improvements can be made to integrate support and
accountability. Eventually, apps could become a viable and
cost-effective alternative to traditional weight-loss programs.
"You can't totally replace in-person social networks with virtual
networks," Jensen said. "But I think one of the future directions of
mobile health technology is figuring out how to take advantage of
people's naturally-occurring social networks and using family and
friends to fill the role that meeting with a clinician would normally
The end goal of this line of research isn't to make the best app or
lose the most weight or make weight-loss clinicians obsolete. Jensen
says the goal is to figure out what works, and thereby help as many
people as possible to live healthily.
"Our task isn't education alone - most people know what foods are or
aren't healthy," Jensen said. "Our task is to find ways to motivate and
make the job easier. We want to make it less difficult for teens to live
a healthy lifestyle."