Apps and social networks can aid dieting, but in-person help is best: study

  • TECH
  • Monday, 05 May 2014

TECH BOOST: Apps can demystify information about health, diet and fitness, say researchers. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014

Smartphone apps could prove key in helping people engage and persist with getting in shape and adopting healthy behaviours. 

However, if people want to meet long-term fitness goals and avoid yo-yo dieting, they also need a real-world social network, say researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia. 

According to Cheryl Shigaki, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Health Professionals, IT in general and apps in particular help to repackage traditional weight loss strategies -- which can seem overly complex or daunting -- and provide new tools, such as exercise logs and nutritional databases, to implement that knowledge. 

"When people use information technology to support their weight-loss efforts, they tend to access features that streamline the tracking of daily health behaviours, such as caloric intake and exercise, or that provide visual feedback on their overall progress, like graphs showing weight lost over time," Shigaki said. 

"Self-monitoring is key to successful weight loss, and information technology can make these tasks more convenient." 

A systematic review of 31 previous studies into dieting carried out by the University of California, published in 2007, shows that while people lose between 5% and 10% of their weight during the first six months of a diet, up to two thirds of dieters go on to put on more weight than they had lost within five years, increasing further their risks of future chronic health problems. 

Shigaki and co-authors Richelle Koopman, Allison Kabel and Shannon Canfield found that access to support can pay dividends in helping people stick to weight loss plans and meet health goals. 

A host of apps aimed at health and fitness and activity tracking come with an integrated social element, allowing users to share their progress on networks like Facebook or on tailor-made sites populated by other health app users. 

But their research, "Successful weight loss: how information technology is used to lose," published in the Journal of Telemedicine and e-Health, finds that people need people and that in-person social support was overwhelmingly preferred to social networks, especially new networks in which connections are based on health and lifestyle targets. 

"People really liked getting feedback on their progress, which motivated them and helped them better evaluate their health behaviours and plan for future success," said Shigaki. 

And, for the moment at least, information technologies cannot replace or improve on a real-life social network of believers and supporters. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014  

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