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Mobile Exercise Trackers Do Help You Lose Weight

A weight loss program’s biggest losers used a PDA to record their nutrition and exercise habits.
December 11, 2012

Perhaps more than exercising, I like exercise tracking. I have handful of different exercise and nutrition apps on my iPhone. And as soon as I work up the nerve I’m going to splurge on one of those tracker devices like the Jawbone Up or FitBit that’ll measure miles run, laps swum, calories chewed, swallowed, and burned off.

Which is why this study from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, a study that observed the effect of mobile tracking technology on weight loss, caught my eye.

A team led by Bonnie Spring, a psychologist specializing in behavioral medicine, observed a group of 70 exercising adults over one year. All 70 had access to a health and nutrition information class that was held a few times during the year, and all 70 were instructed to keep record of their eating and exercising habits.

One group got to do this using pen and paper, the other group was offered a “PDA” (not an app) in which they could digitally record their progress. In addition to the digital record keeping, those using the PDA had their data tracked remotely by a “health coach” who’d speak with them on the phone every two weeks.

This study found that the group that was assigned them mobile device worked off 8.6 pounds on average, and kept it off for a whole year. Mobile device users who’d attended the optional health education health classes with an attendance rate of 80 percent or more lost 15 pounds. In comparison, the group that recorded their habits on paper did not lose weight. The work is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. 

Spring, the study’s mastermind, acknowledges that it wasn’t solely the digital device that gave that gave the slimming group the edge. “The patients know the coaches are hovering and supportively holding them accountable,” Spring said in a press release. “They know somebody is watching and caring and that’s what makes a difference.”

This is an interesting result to me. I’d assumed that better tracking could have led to better results—if results were obtained at all. The way I’d seen it, you’re less likely to lose your phone compared to a piece of paper that your write your data on. While better equipment might be a factor, it seems like a much more primal motivation—a connection between two human beings—was also at play. 

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