There are so many new technologies for weight management. Do I need one? Which one do I choose?
Smartphone apps and wearable trackers are more popular than ever. We can now track our behavior, receive feedback, and connect with others with similar interests and goals. But sorting through the wide range of apps and devices can be difficult. Below is an overview of the types of apps and devices available for weight management, along with some tips for to figure out whether you need this technology and which approach is right for you.
Tracking apps for smartphones
Apps for weight management typically focus on tracking. There are apps to track the food that you eat—often by searching a database for foods and beverages and then entering the amount you consumed. Apps also let you track your exercise using information that you enter manually, or by tracking your activity automatically using the GPS or accelerometer in your phone. Apps can also be used to track changes in your weight. Additionally, some apps allow you to integrate diet and physical activity information from the wearable devices and scales describe below. Compared to using paper diaries, tracking your weight, diet, and physical activity via smartphone apps may be more convenient because they do some of the work for you (e.g., looking up calorie information and keeping a running total of calories consumed and/or physical activity minutes accrued). It may also be more fun and engaging to use smartphone apps that give you feedback and motivational messages about your diet, weight loss, and exercise habits. Most of these apps are available for very little cost, and there is typically very little risk involved in giving them a try.
There are several devices on the market that you can wear on your wrist, hip, shoe, or other places, which track your physical activity (often by measuring the number of steps that you take). Some devices also use GPS to track where you exercise and the pace and/or intensity. In addition, some of these devices also allow you to track your sleep quality and duration, which can help you learn about your sleep patterns. These wearable devices typically display the information collected and provide feedback via a smartphone app and/or website, allowing you to track changes over time.
Scales to track your weight
There are now digital scales available that make tracking your body weight an easy process. The scales work just like traditional bathroom scales that measuring your weight (and often body fat percentage), but they also transmit your weight information to a website and/or smartphone application This allows you to track changes in your weight over time.
Digital health technology for children
In addition to all of the apps and mobile devices available for adults to help with management, there are many tools available for children. Many of these products are focused on physical activity and/or weight gain prevention rather than weight loss. Some apps that specially target children use fun games, music, and age-appropriate content to help engage children in healthy behaviors. There are other apps that are designed to help engage the whole family in building healthy eating and physical activity habits. Additionally, there are a few physical activity devices on the market that are made specifically for children, and are designed to be more durable, etc. to endure the playground! These children-specific devices often come with a special app for smartphones and/or the web that is designed to be easy for children to use and track their own progress over time.
Up and coming developments in digital health technology
Technology advances rapidly and there are always new products just around the corner. We can expect that sensors to measure all types of weight-related factors such as eating habits and physical health will become much more common and sophisticated. We will also need new methods to analyze and summarize the data collected from our many devices so that it is presented to us in the most helpful way. The software may even become so sophisticated that it can predict when we are likely to run into trouble with our health and/or our health behaviors. We may someday receive "warnings" that will allow us to prevent, or at least cope better, with difficult situations.
How do I know whether I would benefit from digital health technology and which are the best tools for me?
Merely downloading a smartphone app or purchasing a tracking device is not likely to improve your weight, eating, or physical activity habits. Rather, technology can serve as a powerful tool to help you get the most out of a committed effort to improve your lifestyle and your health. Smartphone apps and tracking devices can make it easier to set goals and track your progress. It can also feel more fun to make healthy changes when you can see your progress in colorful charts, and when you receive a supportive message on your smartphone congratulating you on your progress. However, some tracking technology can be expensive, and it is important to use it in a way that gives you the most "bang for your buck."
One of the easiest weight-related things we can monitor with our technology is tracking your body weight. Using new "smart" scales and frequent self-weighing has been shown to be an effective way to help people achieve a healthier body weight.1 When shopping for a digital scale, you'll want to find one that integrates well with other devices you own. Some scales require a wireless home Internet network while others connect directly to a smartphone or computer. If you have other members of your household that will use the scale, be sure to check whether the scale supports multiple users as well.
While weight management requires a focus on both what you eat and how much you exercise, there is some evidence that tackling these behaviors one at a time may be more effective than trying to make big changes to both at once.2 An easy place to start may be physical activity. There are a variety of ways to track your physical activity using a website, smartphone and/or wearable fitness tracker. Finding one that's right for you will depend on your budget and your willingness to regularly wear and use a device. Features to look for include ease of use and wear, appealing and easy interface (how your activity is displayed), and user feedback from people who have experience with the product (many online sites have user reviews of devices they use). When shopping for a tracking device, check to see if it integrates with other devices or apps you already own or use (like a scale or food tracking app). The key is to find a device or app that you can use every day and easily integrate into your daily routine. Studies have found that the more people track their behaviors, like dietary intake, the more successful they are in achieving a healthy weight.3
Diet tracking is another key component of weight loss and there are a variety of ways to track your diet using technology. The primary method is to use an app that allows you to enter what you eat or drink each day. These apps generally will calculate your calorie needs based on your body weight and weight management goals. Unfortunately, tracking diet via apps is currently more burdensome and less automated than tracking your physical activity because foods have to be entered manually whereas tracking of activity can be automated. However, using technology may still be more convenient and enjoyable than using paper diaries. Plus, more work is being done to make tracking your diet easier, including the use of wearable sensors and digital photos. Stay tuned!
Once you have the tools you need to track your behaviors and body weight, then what do you do? Weight, diet, and physical activity trackers help you measure your progress but don't necessarily tell you how to improve your habits or give you the support you need. Below are some good places to start to get information on adopting the habits needed for successful weight loss and maintenance:
In addition, many people need to build in a support system along with having the tools necessary for weight loss or maintenance. Social networks can be a source of both support and provision of skills. Finding people through blogs or social networking sites can be a great way to stay motivated and get the support you need. In addition, many of the diet tracking apps allow you to connect with other users via discussion boards and physical activity tracking apps often have the capability to allow you to share your exercise with friends and post it to social networks as well.
How to evaluate digital health for obesity treatment and prevention.
Obesity researchers in the field of digital health are often asked which app or device is 'best' for weight loss or weight gain prevention. The use of the word 'best' implies that a quality rating or criteria can be applied; however, there is currently no 'gold standard' against which to compare a new or existing app or device. Without a doubt, 'best' is subject to interpretation. Researchers have conducted several studies on apps and digital health tools for obesity prevention and treatment for both adults and children, finding that many of them lack behavioral strategies that are effective for weight loss.4-6 So how do you know which one is best for you? The short answer is: the one you like to use, that engages you enough to keep using it, and helps you to maintain and achieve a healthy weight. Generally, you want to look for apps and devices with credible content, a user-friendly interface, and a clear way by which data are safeguarded.
You want to make sure the content provided through an app or website is credible. One rule of thumb is to use the 10 red flags of junk science7 to evaluate the content. Learn more about the 10 red flags here.
The best way to figure out if a digital health device is right for you is to try it out. Some stores that carry these devices will allow you to wear the device in the store to see how it feels. You'll also want to figure out if the digital health technology you're thinking of using is going to be easy to use. Ask yourself these 6 questions below to assess how user-friendly the device is (adapted from Brooke, J. 1996).8
- Do you think you'd use this Digital Health device often?
- Do you find it easy to use?
- Would you be able to set up and use the Digital Health device without a lot of support?
- Do you feel that using the device is manageable?
- Is using the Digital Health device fun?
- Do you feel confident you could use the device consistently?
If you answered "Yes" to most of the question above, then the device may user-friendly for you.
What's going on with your data?
Review the privacy agreement for devices and apps that you use. It's important to know who can see your data and who technically owns your data. Can companies sell your data? Is your data publicly available on a website for other users to see? Can you take your data with you if you decide to change devices? These are good things to look into before you start logging your weight, calories, or exercise.
The Digital Age has helped to revolutionize how we can monitor our health and weight-related behaviors; share our information with friends, family, and medical professionals; and receive encouragement and feedback. While there are a variety of technologies out there that can help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight, not every app or device will work equally well for every person. It's important for you to find technology that is easy to use, gives you accurate and timely feedback, and keeps you engaged.
- Steinberg DM, Tate DF, Bennett GG, Ennett S, Samuel-Hodge C, Ward DS. The efficacy of a daily self-weighing weight loss intervention using smart scales and e-mail. Obesity. 2013;21(9):1789-1797.
- King AC, Castro CM, Buman MP, Hekler EB, Urizar GG, Jr., Ahn DK. Behavioral impacts of sequentially versus simultaneously delivered dietary plus physical activity interventions: the CALM trial. Ann Behav Med. 2013;46(2):157-168.
- Burke LE, Wang J, Sevick MA. Self-monitoring in weight loss: a systematic review of the literature. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111(1):92-102.
- Direito A, Dale LP, Shields E, Dobson R, Whittaker R, Maddison R. Do physical activity and dietary smartphone applications incorporate evidence-based behaviour change techniques? BMC Public Health. 2014;14:646.
- Pagoto S, Schneider K, Jojic M, DeBiasse M, Mann D. Evidence-Based Strategies in Weight-Loss Mobile Apps. Am J Prev Med. 2013;45(5):576-582.
- Schoffman DE, Turner-McGrievy G, Jones SJ, Wilcox S. Mobile apps for pediatric obesity prevention and treatment, healthy eating, and physical activity promotion: just fun and games? Transl Behav Med. 2013;3(3):320-325.
- Flaherty J. Debunk the Junk: 10 red flags to help you sort specious nutrition advice from the good stuff. August 13, 2014. Tufts Now http://nowtuftsedu/articles/debunk-junk.
- Brooke J. SUS: a "quick and dirty" usability scale. In: Jordan PW, Thomas B, Weerdmeester BA, McClelland AL, eds. Usability Evaluation in Industry. London: Taylor and Francis; 1996.
Acknowledgements: Developed by TOS's eHealth/mHealth Section.
Last updated February 2015.