Weight-Loss Apps Alone Probably Not Helpful for Overweight Young Adults

A weight-loss cell phone app alone did not help overweight young adults sustain weight loss any better than a written handout did.

Used alone, an app-based approach to weight loss was of only limited use for overweight young adults, according to new research from investigators at Duke Medicine and published online in Obesity.

The randomized study included 365 people ages 18 to 35 years who were overweight or obese. One group of participants used an Android app called CITY (Cell Phone Intervention for You) that was designed exclusively for the study. It tracked calorie intake, activity, and weight loss goals and also offered weight loss tips and opportunities to connect with other users of the app for social support. A second group received written 3-page handouts promoting healthy eating and more exercise (controls), and a third group received personal coaching enhanced by smartphone self-monitoring. The coaches met with participants weekly for 6 weeks and then followed up with monthly phone meetings.

Participants who had the personal coaching intervention lost a mean of 1.92 kg more than controls at 6 months (P = .003) but not at 12 or 24 months. After 2 years there was no sign that either using a phone app or a personal coach was any more effective than getting a handout about weight loss at the doctor’s office.

This study was the longest and largest trial investigating the use of cell phone apps to modify eating and exercise behavior, according to the study’s lead author Laura P. Svetkey, MD, professor of medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine. She said that while the app did work for some people, on average the difference between results with the app and in the control group was insignificant.

“It doesn’t mean that cell phone apps can’t work for weight control, but this one didn’t,” she concluded. “We thought that because this is an age group that is most engaged in technology, it might be possible to intervene and prevent future problems like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes while they are still developing their lifestyle habits.”

Study coauthor Gary G. Bennett, PhD, Bishop-MacDermott Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke, said researchers need to continue to develop tools for young adults, including apps. Research has focused on older people, a missed opportunity because young adults are having a hard time losing weight and keeping it off, and need interventions to offset health risks later on.

“A lot of people can lose weight in a short amount of time,” he said. “The real question is, can they keep it off in the long term.”