Your Health

Are mobile apps effective for weight management?

Screenshot by Diego Abeloos
Apps like Lose It! by FitNow Inc., above, offer various features such as daily calorie budget calculations.

Mobile apps may be a fun way to track physical activities and diet, but many of them do not include the features most likely to lead to long-term behavior change, according to a key finding in a recently published study conducted by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute (PAMFRI).

The study, scheduled for publication in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, evaluated mobile apps that target primarily nutrition and weight tracking based on strategies commonly used to guide behavior change.

In the United States, rates of those overweight and obese continue to rise. With 61 percent of U.S. adults owning a smartphone, software apps offer a new and promising approach to behavioral lifestyle intervention.

“Given the thousands of apps available that target diet and weight loss, we were very interested to see if the popular ones included features that we know will help people achieve their long-term health goals,” said Lenard Lesser, M.D., PAMFRI assistant research physician.

In a clinical practice, health-care providers often use well-researched behavioral strategies to help patients eat healthfully. For example, a physician treating overweight patients might have them write down what they eat or weigh themselves every day. Both strategies have shown to be important in weight loss and in promoting lifestyle behavior change.

“The key to a successful app would be one that both keeps users engaged and uses proven behavioral strategies. For any of us to change our behaviors, we have to take little steps and celebrate each one of them,” said Kristen Azar, R.N., assistant nurse researcher at PAMFRI and co-investigator in the study.

PAMFRI investigators assessed 10 of the top-rated free apps in the Health and Fitness category in the iTunes App Store. They evaluated the apps based on the same criteria and categorized them into five groups: diet tracking, grocery decision-making, restaurant decision-making, healthful cooking and weight tracking. Four researchers then evaluated two of the most popular apps from each category based on a scale that measured incorporation of several theories of behavior change. The researchers found that most of the apps scored low, meaning that they lacked features that are likely to lead to long-term healthful habits.

“Our results indicate that many app developers are not including proven behavioral strategies in their apps,” Lesser said. “Without long-term data on whether these apps work, it is hard to recommend them as the solution for poor eating habits. While we await that data, app developers should work with health professionals to make sure that they are making their apps as beneficial as possible.”

The top-rated app in the study was “Lose It!” by FitNow Inc. However, PAMFRI researchers emphasized that different apps may be better suited for different individuals.

“Patients should talk with their providers about which app might be best for them,” Lesser said. “Providers may use the results of this paper when recommending an app for a particular type of patient. Ideally, more app developers will collaborate with medical experts so that the new apps are medically effective and fun.”

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