How Your Cell Phone Can Help You Lose Weight

How Your Cell Phone Can Help You Lose Weight

Introducing your new health coach: automatic text messages. (Ben Welsh/Corbis)

You Facetime your BFF to make plans for Friday night, receive a text alert from your bank when your account balance nosedives, and Snapchat silly faces to your siblings. For most people, a cell phone is an integral part of nearly every aspect of life, from waking up in the morning to scheduling appointments.

So it was only a matter of time before it got involved in managing your waistline.

 Mobile weight-loss interventions, such as text message reminders, can help people lose significantly more weight than they would without cell phone support, according to a new study presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions.

Researchers analyzed the results from 14 different studies on weight-loss programs involving more than 1,300 subjects. They found that, on average, people lost about 3.2 extra pounds when their program involved a mobile component. The studies used mobile technology in a variety of ways. Some sent people personalized feedback using text messages. Others texted people general information on healthy eating or physical activity.

“Before our meta-analysis, the findings had been inconsistent,” says study author Tanika Kelly, PhD, associate professor at Tulane University School of Public Health. “It looked like there was a general trend toward weight loss with most of these interventions, but many of these studies were very small and probably didn’t have enough statistical power to identify an association if it existed.” By pooling the results from previous studies, the Tulane University researchers were able to see the larger trend: Giving tips and motivation via mobile phone improved weight-loss results compared to the same program minus the mobile phone support.

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“A lot of the behavioral interventions that are designed for weight loss have low compliance,” Kelly explains. “Participants are generally pretty good sticking to diets or maintaining physical activity for the first 6 weeks to 3 months, but then compliance really starts to fall off. People start making exceptions and eating bad food again, and they’re not working out as much, and their weight starts to creep back up.” Simple reminders—even by a text bot—may be enough to help people stick to their diet and exercise plan, which could improve outcomes, Kelly says.

One study, published in Preventive Medicine, supports Kelly’s hypothesis. The study’s 170 overweight and obese subjects received either daily text messages for 1 year or monthly email newsletters. “While there were no differences in weight loss between groups, when looking at those in the text messaging group, participants who responded to a greater proportion of texts lost more weight both at 6 months and at 12 months,” says study author Jennifer Shapiro, PhD, an obesity specialist based in San Diego, Calif. “In addition, those in the text messaging group increased their pedometer steps almost 3,000 steps per day over time, and higher step counts were associated with greater weight loss.”

Shapiro adds that cell phones may also aid weight loss by helping people track their food and exercise better than traditional methods, such as written diaries. “Given that our society has become more technological, mobile interventions can improve weight loss outcomes because they allow for fast, easy, discreet, and convenient logging,” she says. “People can log immediately after eating, take pictures of their food for better recall, and can also record type of physical activity.”

The results associated with these types of programs are modest, Kelly says, but even small changes in weight can have a significant impact on cardiovascular disease and other health outcomes. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can significantly lower your risk for heart disease, says the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. And with 90 percent of Americans now owning a cell phone, according to the Pew Research Institute, mobile interventions could be a relatively inexpensive way to help large numbers of people slim down.

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Want to give it a shot? There aren’t many weight-loss text message services available to the public yet (attention app developers!), but here are a few worth trying. Keep in mind that text message rates do apply, so you might want to have an unlimited texting plan before signing up.

  • Cell-U-lite (free). This service from the Medical University of South Carolina texts you a daily weight-loss tip. You can also select to have the tips emailed to you, and choose the time of day you’d like to receive them. 

  • Weight Loss Nagger (Free for 7 days, $9/month thereafter). Receive daily weight-loss text messages targeted toward your goals. The trial period is a good way to learn if you’ll find the service helpful or just, well, a nag.

  • Coach Alba ($29.95 per year). It comes at a price, but Coach Alba is the most customizable program available. When you register, you choose your common weight-loss challenges, such as nighttime snacking. The service gives you tips to cope, and sends you encouragement and reminders. You text back to let the program know how you did, and it tracks which strategies work best for you. 

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