Utilizing Technology to Treat and Manage Obesity

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions on a global scale. No longer just a health issue for wealthier countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) obesity is now widespread in middle to low income countries. In the United States, nearly 37 percent of adults live with obesity, and one in six children and adolescents.

Obesity is not only very costly—in 2008 medical expenses for people with obesity were $1,429 higher than those without—it can also lead to some of the leading causes of preventable death including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

People with obesity face significant health challenges, as well as bias and stigma from employers, society, and even in clinical settings, often deterring them from seeking medical care. According to the Obesity Society, “heavier patients are more likely to cancel and delay appointments and preventive health care services, particularly among women who are overweight or obese.”

Advancements in digital health are paving the way for patients with chronic illness, such as  obesity, to be more proactive about their health and providing the tools to manage their illness in a way that works best for them. For people looking for weight loss solutions, apps and wearable trackers are among the most popular. But are they effective?

Smartphone Apps and Wearable Trackers

There are countless apps on the market to support weight loss and weight management goals. Many apps track lifestyle behaviors that may be contributing to weight gain, provide helpful feedback on topics such as meal choices, help connect users with others facing similar challenges and track weight loss progress over time. Some apps will even calculate body mass index, measure heart rateread by putting a fingertip over the phone’s cameraand provide motivational messages and encouragement. Apps are not only convenient but reduce a lot of the leg work for users by looking up food calorie information and tracking important details such as calories consumed or burned.

Wearable trackers, such as Fitbit, designed to track physical activity, can also be useful tools for weight loss. Worn on the body or attached to clothing, wearables can track movement, caloric intake, provide feedback on whether or not fitness goals are meeting meteven nudge the user to step it up a bit. Some devices will even provide insight on sleep patterns, or notably a lack thereof, which has been linked with obesity. Individuals can also engage other users for a little healthy competition to jumpstart motivation.

Associate Professor Katie Siek, who studies wearable digital devices at Indiana University’s Informatics Department, told CNN “monitors have taken off because they are easy to use and actively track progress towards goals.” Many people simply find them engaging and fun to use, motivating users to stick with their weight loss and fitness plans. Wearables also collect valuable data that users can evaluate with their physician or on their own to better manage weight loss goals and determine what is working and what isn’t.

Does Coaching Hold the Key?

Apps and wearables have their benefits, helping those with obesity or looking to lose weight be more active and in control of their health. However, the key for patients to effectively learn to manage a chronic disease like obesity and maintain health long-term is through significant behavior change—unlikely to be achieved solely by downloading an app or wearing a device.

One study looking at if behavior change techniques (BCTs) were effectively incorporated into weight loss apps found a “relative absence of behaviour change strategies present in physical activity and dietary apps.” Additionally, “Emerging evidence demonstrates the need for collaboration between health behaviour change experts and app developers to create apps that include effective BCTs.”

The benefits of health coaching however on patients with chronic disease is becoming more and more evident. A systematic review looking at the effects of health coaching on patients with chronic disease found “better weight management, increased physical activity and improved physical and mental health status.”

Many in the healthcare industry are recognizing that a physician telling a patient with obesity that they need to change isn’t enough and doesn’t work. Research reveals that patients who need to make significant lifestyle and behavioral changes in order to improve their health, such as with obesity, will fare markedly better under the guidance and support of a health coach.

Technology such as texting, email and phone can further elevate the coaching/patient dynamic creating a consistent flow of communication and support for an individual as they work to embrace a healthier lifestyle and learn to manage their obesity.

Getting the Most out of Technological Advancements

There is no shortage of technologies on the market touting weight loss support and management for people struggling with obesity. However, the fast pace at which technologies are being developed in this space make it difficult for individuals and clinicians to decipher the ones that are really effective.

The development of technical solutions for obesity, as well as for other chronic diseases, will need to be thoughtful, easy-to-use and tailored to fit the many unique demographics utilizing them in order to achieve long-term, significant benefits for patients.